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Superstore’s third season proved it’s one of TV’s best comedies

Funny and meaningful and beautifully constructed — sitcoms don’t get much better than this.

Jonah and Amy struggle to save the job of their former coworker Myrtle in the Superstore finale.
Colleen Hayes/NBC
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If you want to see a pitch-perfect, beautifully executed sitcom episode, look no further than “Gender Reveal,” the 20th episode of Superstore’s third season.

That episode of the NBC sitcom ends with a moment you always knew the show would get to — a big, big kiss — but what comes before is such a roller coaster that by the time the moment actually happens, it’s about the fourth or fifth thing on your mind. In its third season, especially, Superstore has been so cognizant of all the sitcoms before it that it could be compared to; it would be easy for the show to constantly subvert our expectations based on those earlier reference points.

Instead, it does something different. It gives viewers what they want, but in a way where they’re no longer sure they want it. It understands the tension between expectations and results better than almost any comedy on television, and it also understands how that tension is baked into the grinding nature of a retail job, where even the slightest variance in routine can feel like a huge deal.

The momentum from “Gender Reveal” continues through the season’s final two episodes, including season finale “Town Hall,” which aired Thursday, May 3, and reveals just how many of the season’s seemingly tossed-off plot points were specifically set up for what happens in the finale (my favorite kind of serialization). Superstore is a show that dabbles in political and social issues, yes, but it’s also a show about maintaining your dignity in the face of a system that sees you as just another piece of a corporate puzzle.

That makes it one of the best shows of the year, and it also makes watching season three, newly available in full on Hulu, a must. Spoilers for the season follow.

Superstore is a marvel of precision sitcom construction

I’ve written plenty of times before about how Superstore, with its big-box department store setting and willingness to talk about issues pertaining to the American working class, is one of TV’s most sneakily thoughtful comedies. It lures you in with its ace ensemble of actors, its tart sense of humor, and its surprisingly playful visual sense — never more evident than in the little one-second vignettes of customers shopping that play between longer scenes — then hits you with storytelling about what it means to live on the edge of poverty.

This made “Town Hall” something of a thesis statement for the entire show. The characters discover that Cloud 9 (the titular superstore) presented fraudulent reasons to fire elderly employees, resulting in the dismissal of Myrtle, a supporting character, earlier in the third season. Myrtle was older, and she wasn’t the best Cloud 9 employee, but she also didn’t deserve to be fired for a bunch of made-up accusations (which included “wearing gang colors to work”). So her former co-workers hatch an elaborate plan to interrupt a town hall meeting with Cloud 9’s CEO, which is being held at their store, in celebration of its recovery from being struck by a tornado (in the season two finale).

What unfolds from there wraps in story points from the season both big — the unexpected pregnancy of series lead Amy (America Ferrera) — and small (the existence of a tunnel in the store’s crawlspaces). With its interest in the ways corporations exploit and thoughtlessly throw out their employees, it feels like both a singular episode of the show and a culmination of the season en totale. The effort to save Myrtle’s job fails, as the CEO quickly realizes what’s happening and essentially buys off the only person with real, hard proof of what happened before any evidence can be revealed. Just another day in corporate America.

Just a few members of Superstore’s excellent ensemble.
Colleen Hayes/NBC

So even when the episode ends with Amy finally having sex with love interest Jonah (Ben Feldman) — while accidentally and unknowingly being broadcast by a camera feed that beams footage of their hookup to the entire corporation — that, too, feels like a thesis statement for a show that’s never met a dull workplace moment it couldn’t spice up with a hint of romance (as I wrote more about here).

And yet this isn’t held up as a “finally!” moment entirely. Amy, after all, is pregnant with her ex-husband’s baby, and Jonah both knows that and isn’t quite sure what to do with it. (The big kiss between the two at the end of “Gender Reveal” is followed by Amy telling Jonah she’s just learned she’s pregnant.) Superstore has never met a sweet moment it couldn’t lace with uncertainty or melancholy.

Yes, there were less successful episodes in season three (in particular an episode centered on a visit to Target that played like the grossest forms of product placement), but the construction of the season on both macro and micro levels was so precise that it became one of the few shows I made sure to watch live every week when it aired, instead of after the fact on Hulu.

It’s rare to find a comedy that’s funny and meaningful and exquisitely made, but Superstore understands that all three of these qualities feed into one another. Good storytelling and thoughtful considerations of the world we live in will make the jokes funnier, while having funny jokes will make the political stuff slide by more easily. And so on.

My favorite moments of “Town Hall” often featured quick cutaways to other Cloud 9 stores around the world, watching the town hall meeting over the internet. Each of these stores, in Beijing or Mumbai or Vancouver, must have its own stories, even if the stories we’re privy to are the ones at the Cloud 9 in suburban St. Louis we check in on every week. In the world as realized by Superstore, we might be from different countries. We might believe different things. We might have wildly different life circumstances. But goodness, do we all hate our jobs.

Superstore is available on Hulu. Season four begins on NBC in the fall.

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