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How Superstore got so good

5 big reasons to make The Office’s heir apparent your new comfort food sitcom of choice.

America Ferrera and Ben Feldman star in Superstore.
Trae Patton/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.

It’s a Friday morning, and the set of NBC’s Superstore is filled with more than a dozen of the show’s regular and recurring characters. As I look around at the actors gathered, I abruptly realize there are 15 characters I can name in this scene alone — and almost a dozen more who aren’t present.

That’s a deep bench for any TV show; it’s an especially deep bench for a network sitcom that airs a new 21-minute episode every week. But part of the secret to Superstore’s success lies in how scenes like the one I’m about to observe — set in the break room of the fictional Cloud 9 department store — are filled with so, so many characters, yet build comedy better than almost anything else on TV.

And on this day, as I watch the cast work, I start to better understand why. The process of filming the scene in question is murderous, as the actors have to repeat it over and over and over again, for the many camera setups required to capture all their faces reacting to the assorted jokes peppered throughout. It’s rare for a single scene in a TV comedy to have this much production time afforded to it — sliding past two hours by the time it wraps — but the care and effort the cast and crew put into it is perfectly representative of this beautiful oddball of a show.

America Ferrera, who plays Amy, one of Superstore’s lead characters, is also directing today, so she has to alternate between playing Amy, who is leading a staff meeting in the break room, and guiding her fellow actors and the camera crew. (She is an excellent director, always getting just what she wants from actors without asking anybody to mimic her line readings.)

And she keeps the energy on the set from flagging, incorporating new jokes pitched by the episode’s writer while on set and rolling with an improvised moment when one of the other cast members asks her to do an impression of Pepé Le Pew. (Sadly, the impression doesn’t make the final cut.)

It’s amazing just how dialed-in these 15 actors (plus assorted extras!) remain during take after take after take, making the material funnier and the story stronger. They have the kind of dynamic you rarely see on network TV sets — all of these people like each other, and they like the show they’re working on too.

That quality carries over to the series itself, which has somehow become one of those hidden TV gems people don’t talk about often enough. So if you’re looking for a show to binge over the summer, here are five reasons to make Superstore’s 77 episodes your choice — along with intel from the set, cast, and creator about what makes the show tick.

1) Superstore’s hugely diverse cast is one of TV’s best — and it’s packed with amazingly funny people

The most obvious forebear of Superstore is The Office. Superstore was created by Justin Spitzer, an Office vet, and it’s a story about a workplace with an off-the-wall boss (Mark McKinney’s Glenn), a will-they/won’t-they romance (between Amy and Ben Feldman’s Jonah), and a whole bunch of people who might rather be working anywhere else but are nonetheless relieved to have their low-wage jobs at Cloud 9.

As with The Office, Superstore’s characters have filled in around the show’s edges over time. The show began with a core cast of seven regulars (built around the long-simmering Jonah/Amy connection), but as peripheral characters continued to break out after being given a line or two here and there, more and more actors became part of the semi-central crew at Cloud 9, turning up in episode after episode.

Kelly Schumann, who plays Justine, a cheerfully sociopathic employee who started out as a one-line character, told me about her journey on the show.

“When I auditioned, it did say it was possibly recurring,” Schumann said. “But it was just one line. ... I had a great experience, but I left thinking, I don’t know if I did enough for them to notice. Cut to several weeks later, and they were like, ‘We want to bring you in you for this episode.’” Justine has since become one of Superstore’s many Cloud 9 semi-regulars.

The show’s expansive cast is also one of TV’s most diverse. Of the seven series regulars, four are people of color, and that diversity extends to the recurring characters as well. The cast features LGBTQ characters, characters of non-Christian religions, characters of different body types, and characters who bridge all sides of the class divide, something the show very pointedly discusses.

Season four’s primary arc — about Amy’s quest to become a store manager — is a great case in point. It successfully charts the way Amy’s attempts to rise within the Cloud 9 hierarchy are initially stymied by an unqualified white guy who’s granted his role through nepotism. But it also traces what happens after Amy finally lands the manager job and gets a substantial raise that puts her on the other side of the class divide, opposite many of her friends.

These stories are complex and meaty and not about diversity for the sake of diversity; that’s because Superstore is always trying to find new ways to talk about what workplace diversity really means. Nico Santos — who plays Mateo, Cloud 9’s floor manager, who’s an undocumented Filipino immigrant and a gay man — is a great example of how this aim has affected the show at every level.

“Mateo is an interesting character for me. He started off as just the bitchy employee in the store, and he could have been so two-dimensional, but they really added so many layers as he progressed,” Santos says. “The fact that they made him an undocumented immigrant was a genius move in my opinion. We’ve added an in-depth layer that explains a lot of his nature and why he’s so acidic, why he’s so hypercompetitive. The stakes are very high for him, and that’s where his soul venom comes from.”

2) Superstore is one of the best shows on TV about American life in the 2010s

In 2012, I wrote a piece for the A.V. Club about the death of the working-class sitcom. TV had long been home to shows about people who worked low-paying jobs and just barely earned enough money to get by. But in the 21st century, those have slowly left the airwaves, save for an occasional The Middle or The Conners.

Superstore, however, isn’t just a show about people who struggle to make ends meet. It’s a show about how a lot of the working class survives in 2019, by working menial retail jobs that maybe aren’t as rewarding as they could be but do pay (some of) the bills. The show is careful not to do stories where characters inexplicably come up with the money they suddenly need to cover some emergency. If a character’s car breaks down, they’ll be taking the bus.

That commitment to portraying economic distress has even affected the show’s cast members, who are, after all, Hollywood actors who make money from being on TV. But, says Feldman, working on the series has helped him understand how American business structures make it difficult for many workers to earn a living.

“I’ve learned a lot about corporate life being on the show. I work for Universal [which produces the show]. I work for corporate in a way, but it doesn’t hit me the way [it hits] someone who feels so small in one of these giant stores,” Feldman said. “I’ve learned a lot about the dynamics between management and worker, pay gaps, and health care.”

Superstore also tells stories about other social issues, from sexual harassment to cultural appropriation. But it never feels like an “issue of the week” show — tough to do. The writers are careful to make sure that the social issues arise from the storytelling. They won’t force a plot about health care just to have a plot about health care. But if two characters on the show are pregnant at the same time and one of them has vastly better health insurance than the other, it will do a story about that.

The reason Superstore never feels didactic is that the show’s characters talk about these issues in the way they might come up naturally in real life. And series creator Spitzer, who was also Superstore’s showrunner for its first four seasons, says that’s very much intentional, and an important part of how the series remains fundamentally comedic.

“We know if there’s an issue in the world, we’re going to be dealing with that issue. But we’re really just looking at it in terms of how our characters would react to it or if there’s a comedy attitude somebody would have, hitting that. We don’t feel like we need to examine an issue from all sides,” Spitzer says. “We’re not trying to say why things are bad or say how to fix them. It’s just looking for the comedy minute.”

3) The show does romance very, very well

One of Superstore’s slickest elements is the Jonah/Amy romance, which essentially replicates the Jim/Pam romance from The Office — right down to specific story beats — without once feeling like a rip-off.

This is partially because the show has made Jonah and Amy very specific characters of their own (he took the job as a placeholder when other career paths stalled, and discovered he actually kinda liked it; she had to take the job after having a baby when she was a teenager, and has stuck around ever since). But it’s also because the show’s interest in social issues allows the couple to be on opposing sides, organically — as when attempts to organize a union at Cloud 9 gradually increase tensions between Jonah (who’s a floor worker) and Amy (who’s now in management).

“This season they’re together, which we held off and the writers and Justin held off as long as they possibly, humanly could, because it’s rarely interesting to watch a healthy dynamic between two people, but we were very protective to make sure that we didn’t become different people,” Feldman said. “I think why it works on our show is that it’s not suddenly lovey-dovey and it’s not about our relationship. We’re the same people. We just have this thing going on on the other side of these walls.”

But Superstore is smart about how it deploys romance all across the board. In addition to Jonah and Amy, its core pairing, it features a romance between Mateo and Jeff (one of Cloud 9’s corporate leaders) that is at once sharply incisive and very funny, touching on Jeff’s internalized homophobia as well as the significant class divide between the two.

And if that’s not enough, Superstore also has created a kind of mirror image of Jonah and Amy in the relationship between the bluntly self-assured Dina (Lauren Ash) and the bluntly sarcastic Garrett (Colton Dunn), two people who hook up every so often, then pretend like it never happened, then start flirting again a few episodes or seasons later, even as they know it’s a terrible idea.

“It was a will-they/won’t-they where it was just sort of like, ‘Oh, they did.’ It wasn’t drawn out. It happened, and then it ended, which I really liked because that’s real to me,” Dunn says. “Not [in] every romance in the world or every time somebody hooks up is there this sort of longing looking at each from across the way. ‘Should I kiss him? Should I not?’ Sometimes people hook up, and they don’t even like each other, and then they’re done.”

In a weird way, this approach reflects how Superstore uses social issues storytelling. By featuring several kinds of romantic plots, the series can sprinkle them throughout its other stories to provide a little pop of something else here and there. It all adds up to a rich stew of a show, one that is interested in how much these romantic connections are driven by genuine attraction and love, and how much they stem from circumstance, from the simple boredom of being around the same people every day.

4) Superstore is never content to stay put, and keeps expanding its storytelling

I won’t spoil what happens at the end of the recent season four finale, but it left me genuinely amazed by just how big Superstore is willing to go. The show is not afraid of pulling in beats from other genres — even action movies — if it feels like that’s what will yield the best story, and whenever it takes a turn toward the dramatic (as when a tornado tore down Cloud 9 in the season two finale), it never forgets to lace more serious moments with jokes.

And the longer the show runs, the more fearless it seems to get.

Sometimes, it’s perfectly content to stay small — often in the form of hilarious “interstitials,” which tend to involve Cloud 9 customers making a mess that the characters might have to deal with later. At other times, it unabashedly goes big. Season four finally introduced Cloud 9’s corporate board of directors, and their arrival felt for all the world like when the Others first appeared on Lost.

“Shows do change. I always look at The Good Place, which is an excellent show that I love but ... is opposite in a lot of ways from us,” Spitzer says. “That show is all about movement, it’s constantly moving forward, and ours has lived in one world for a very long time where the change happens more slowly. Other shows, characters get married, characters split up, characters get new jobs, and that’s normal. But you are rolling the dice a little and saying, ‘This works, what we’re doing worked, what happens if we change it? Is that still going to work?’”

Superstore’s characters have evolved alongside the show, with their hopes and desires changing the way they interact with the series’ world. Meanwhile, the show itself has continued to expand the ways its world interacts with our own, including by adding a Syrian refugee character named Sayid in season four.

“I’ve played a range of characters, but when it has been Middle Eastern Arab it’s generally been cliché — terrorist, or terrorist boss, or all of those. The villain. Sayid just happens to be a funny character who just happens to have that background,” says Amir Korangy, who plays Sayid. “There are more dimensions to the guy. He’s allowed to have flaws. He’s allowed to have his good points.”

5) The show’s break room scenes are some of the funniest things on TV

Mark McKinney, formerly of the venerable Canadian sketch troupe Kids in the Hall, now plays Glenn. He clearly knows a little something about group comedy, and when I asked him to share his thoughts on Superstore’s break room scenes — so reliably entertaining I would watch the show just for them — he was only too happy to offer praise, even though they are a lot of work to film.

“Often, that’s the only time where we’re all together in the same room for the week. And because we actually are all kind of friendly with each other, it’s a chance to catch up and show each other stupid YouTube videos,” McKinney said. “It feels theatrical, for lack of a better word. Like a carnival that’s hit the road and found the things that they do well together.”

One of the best things a comedy can do is find scene types that become something of a trademark, that no other show can pull off nearly as well. The break room scenes on Superstore are cousins to the conference room scenes on The Office or the study room scenes on Community, but they are also completely their own thing — if only because of the way Superstore uses them to put the many plots spinning in each and every episode on a collision course.

In a way, the break room scenes are Superstore in a microcosm. They’re a little chaotic, yes — how wouldn’t they be, with that many characters in them? But they’re also incredibly funny, full of heart, and shot through with a darkly comedic streak.

I asked Lauren Ash, who plays Dina and who is also a gifted improviser, what it’s like being in a scene with 15 other people; she didn’t mince words about how working within a large ensemble adds to her experience of making the show.

“Listen, then there’s 14 other people to play off. There’s also 14 different points of view to the scene, and 14 different takes on everything,” she said. “I’m a team sports player, I like sketch and improv because there’s lots of us. It’s super fun in these situations because you have a lot of opportunity to not only see what everybody’s take is on the issue, but everybody’s got a different interaction with everybody. All of that is just a well to mine. Even if you can’t think of a joke, you can rely on the relationships and the past that we’ve created to give you something in the moment.”

Superstore is rarely discussed in the same breath as The Office or Community (well, unless I’m the one doing the talking), but it should be. It’s just as good, just as smart, and just as funny, and it’s been under the radar for way too long. If nothing else, it deserves more attention from industry awards, because it’s one of the few shows on television actually trying to talk about America as it is right now. But it’s also not so self-serious that it can’t function as great comfort food when you just want to watch something familiar and funny.

Superstore isn’t merely a great network TV comedy. It’s what network TV comedy should be.

The first four seasons of Superstore are streaming on Hulu, and season five will air this fall on NBC.