A cleverly written show that balances comedy with social commentary, Superstore is nearly flawless
Starring America Ferrera, Ben Feldman, Lauren Ash, Colton Dunn, Nico Santos, Nichole Sakura, Mark McKinney, and Kaliko Kauahi
Successful sitcoms have a strong and dependable premise from which much humour can be mined. Modern Family explores the contemporary relationship and dynamic of an extended family; Friends examines the family that can be experienced between a group of people in their twenties in the Big City; Schitt’s Creek sees a wealthy family lose their fortune and dropped in the middle of nowhere, who learn how to become grounded, well rounded individuals from the townspeople they are now surrounded by; The Big Bang Theory wasn’t funny. While some are “low concept”, where the status quo is largely maintained as a sort of fishbowl for our characters to stomp around in, more recent sitcoms like The Good Place have been quite plot-heavy, while still having a humorous beating heart.
In the case of Superstore, the highly reliable concept centres around the exploits of various eccentric characters who work at an enormous big-box store in St. Louis. Quite the sleeper hit in America, with a reliable fan base but consistently snubbed at awards, attention is now being drawn towards Superstore by virtue of the first five seasons being released on Netflix in the UK, while the current, and final, sixth season, airs on NBC in America.
Much like many of the previously mentioned sitcoms, Superstore follows a traditional goldfish-bowl structure, in that the characters find themselves trapped mostly in one location and one situation, and much comedy is derived from this consistent status quo instead of massive character developments and arcs.
Obviously, the success of this humour depends largely upon the characters involved. Along with our main cast, of floor manager Amy Sosa (America Ferrera), a hardworking mother, business school dropout Jonah (Ben Feldman), assistant manager Dina (Lauren Ash), ditzy pregnant teenager Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura) and her partner-in-crime Mateo (Nico Santos) and sarcastic Garrett (Colton Dunn), ruled over by highly incompetent and relentlessly positive store manager Glenn Sturgis (Mark McKinney), there are a whole host of other colourful characters that the writers can consistently draw upon for random, but entirely contextual, contributions.
There’s ignored and misunderstood Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi), who is incredibly meek and polite and finds an arch-nemesis in Carol (Irene White), who delights in being vindictive. Additionally, there’s Social outcast Marcus (Jon Barinholtz), pretend party-girl Justine (Kelly Schumann) and awkward district-manager Jeff (Michael Bunin).
The backdrop of menial work that is demanded of these supermarket workers allows for the show to explore issues of income inequality, health insurance, unionisation, lack of maternity leave, cultural appropriation, even immigration and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and race issues in a natural way through the workers’ conversations. While this sometimes forms the basis of the plot, such as subplots involving Jonah and Sandra attempting to start a union despite Cloud 9’s pushing back, it is often just mentioned in passing as a mainstay and inevitability of the characters’ lives. It shines a light upon these issues faced by them, but does not always offer solution, which is often more powerful for the viewer to understand the lack of power these characters have over the situation.
Ever present in the background is the sinister shadow of corporate greed characterised by the Cloud 9 superstore chain, who consistently treat their workers poorly, for barely any pay with incredibly small benefits. As the show continues into the COVID-19 pandemic, it also shines a light upon how much extra work has been placed upon supermarket workers, having to complete extra cleaning, often when they are off-duty and put at additional risk in order to provide the same service as before.
Mostly focussing upon the workplace, the show allows for interactions between a whole host of massively different characters who might otherwise not find themselves interacting in a more traditional sitcom that is focussed upon a group of friends. The commentary is also nicely balanced with the level of comedy, and this comedy is almost always character-based without them feeling forced or two-dimensional.
While lots of episodes find humour within the rigmarole of the everyday mundanity forced upon these workers, other episodes have found our characters protesting a lack of paid maternity leave, being locked in the store overnight, forced to work with a broken air conditioning system because of a technical issue within corporate headquarters and a tornado nearly obliterating the store. Alongside this, there is also the huge emotional core of the show revolving around Amy and Jonah’s will-they-won’t-they slow burn romance.
A continuing testament that a show can be both politically correct and funny, Superstore is a goodhearted comedy which relies upon the strength of the characterisation of its leads and brilliant comic performers to allow the humour to flow. Easy to watch and at a handy twenty-minute length, with many lovable characters on offer, it’s hard to find fault with Superstore.
Superstore Seasons 1 – 5 is streaming now on Netflix UK