Wikipedia’s list of defunct NBC sitcoms encompasses almost 300 series, ordered alphabetically from 100 Questions (canceled in 2010 after six episodes) to You Again? (canceled in 1987 after two seasons). Along with the luminaries of Must-See TV, the list includes such lesser lights as Crowded, which received a series order in May 2015 and was axed after a single 13-episode season. But the defunct sitcom compendium doesn’t yet include the other NBC series that got the green light in the spring of 2015. Long after Crowded entered the TV graveyard, that second sitcom, Superstore, is still open for business: The series started its sixth season last week and aired its 100th episode on Thursday.
It’s unfortunately fitting that Superstore’s landmark moment coincided with a week when much of the country was riveted to election returns. That quirk of timing seems emblematic of a long-running tendency to overlook one of the sharpest shows on network TV. “It definitely has become a running joke in the writers room that we’re always mentioned as ‘one of the best shows you’re not watching,’ instead of just one of the best shows,” says Jonathan Green, who serves as Superstore’s co-showrunner along with Gabe Miller.
Superstore launched without most of the qualities that catapulted companion The Good Place into cultural prominence 10 months later: the seal of a successful sitcom creator (Mike Schur), a cast anchored by a movie star (Kristen Bell) and the GOAT of TV comedy (Ted Danson), and a twisty, serialized format that lent itself to regular recaps. The relatively low-concept Superstore, which was created by The Office writer and producer Justin Spitzer (who stepped down as showrunner following the fourth season), was fated for a lower profile.
The single-camera series, which has starred America Ferrera, Ben Feldman, and an ever-expanding cast of strong supporting players, picked up the mantle of blue-collar comedies but focused less on the family or on hijinks at home than on the soul-suppressing workplace and economic conditions that kept its characters from finding fulfillment or climbing the social ladder. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a series centered on often-forgotten workers who stock the shelves and mop the washrooms at a middle-America big-box store has habitually been snubbed by the Emmys.
It’s probably too late for a huge haul at awards shows or a big breakout on the cultural landscape. But broader conditions in the country have hipped many Americans to conversations Superstore’s characters have conducted since the series started. A year when life feels precarious is an apt time to listen to what one of the past decade’s standout sitcoms has been saying all along.
Superstore is set in a St. Louis branch of fictional retail chain Cloud 9, which is acquired by a tech conglomerate called Zephra in Season 5. The series found its footing a few episodes in and has hardly faltered since; its seasons sport almost identical average IMDb user ratings, indicative of the series’ week-to-week and year-to-year consistency. Over time, the series has zoomed out to make room in the frame for the uncaring executives who set corporate policy from afar. But its humor and heart revolve around the polo-and-khaki-clad core that’s resigned to spending innumerable indistinguishable days at Cloud 9.
Of course, that cast couldn’t stay the same forever. This week’s milestone installment marked the last episode for Ferrera, who played harried working/single mom Amy Sosa and also served as an executive producer and occasional director. Although most of the store’s employees are content to tread water or unable to break out of their ruts, Amy ascended from associate to floor supervisor to assistant manager to manager—and, finally, to corporate liaison between Zephra and Cloud 9, a promotion that required the character to move to California and satisfied Ferrera’s desire to depart the series. That relocation tore Amy apart from the NPR-listening, socially conscious, occasionally condescending business-school dropout Jonah (played by Feldman), her love interest since their unromantic, class-conscious introduction in the pilot.
The Jim-and-Pam-esque flirtation and, later, love between Amy and Jonah was Superstore’s emotional backbone, although the series stayed focused on the workplace even as its leading duo established a bond outside the store. Just as the show navigated the transition from “will they or won’t they” to committed relationship, it will have to find a way forward without Ferrera, who’s occupied the most prominent place on the posters for the first five seasons. “We are so lucky to have such a strong ensemble that we’re leaning on everyone and using some of that real estate within the show,” Miller says. “But I do think Jonah will be stepping up into that point-of-view character role a little more.”
Earlier this year, Schur described the ideal sitcom cast makeup as a Parks and Recreation–type mix of eight to 10 dynamic mainstays and a wealth of tertiary characters. Superstore possesses both. The central ensemble includes the uncomfortably proselytizing but good-hearted Glenn (Mark McKinney), who’ll resume his manager job in Amy’s absence; his unfiltered, domineering, and Dwight-like assistant Dina (Lauren Ash); Jonah’s sardonic, phoning-it-in friend Garrett (Colton Dunn); impulsive, slow-witted youth Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura), and her frequent companion and accomplice, the ultra-vain Mateo (Nico Santos).
The series has also assembled an enviably deep bench of dependable and diverse recurring contributors, highlighted by pushover sad-sack Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi), her nemesis, the conniving Carol (Irene White), pretend party girl Justine (Kelly Schumann), politically incorrect Myrtle (the late Linda Porter), pencil-pushing corporate toady Jeff (Michael Bunin), and needy, ostracized warehouse supervisor Marcus (Jon Barinholtz), who’s line for line one of the funniest characters on TV. Most of these characters come together in Superstore’s break room scenes, which show off the cornucopia of comedic talent at the writing staff’s disposal.
That staff pulls off a deceptively simple-seeming balance by delivering laughs without making light of the serious systemic ills Superstore’s characters encounter. Superstore is a sitcom, not a political platform, so it subtly points out problems without proposing solutions. But its deep-seated sympathy for the debt-ridden drones in dead-end jobs who are trying to make ends meet makes it comfort food with a conscience, full of heartwarming humanism.
Green and Miller, who’ve been writing for the series since Season 1, attribute its feel for that formula and avoidance of a hectoring tone to Spitzer’s desire for the series “to be set in the real world and to feel real as much as possible” within the constraints of a sitcom. “From the beginning, we were always looking at, OK, what kinds of things would these characters be dealing with in their lives?” Green says. “And those issues just naturally come up when you’re talking about real people working in a big-box store. Even in our early episodes we were dealing with things like tokenism or cultural insensitivity and the issues of what you’re forced to do for your job.”
The Dunder Mifflin workers’ white-collar jobs may have been boring, but at least they had benefits. Superstore’s peons are largely living paycheck to paycheck, subject to slashed hours, a lack of maternity leave, and other manifestations of corporate’s insatiable pursuit of profit. They dread automation and attempt to unionize, only to be thwarted when their new corporate parent wipes away the concessions they thought they’d negotiated. The need for the series to maintain status quo at Cloud 9 in order to sustain the story jells well with its characters’ inability to better their lots in life. As my colleague Alison Herman observed in 2016, the working-class setting “makes for a weirdly perfect marriage with conventional sitcom structure, which favors precisely the same inertia and hamster-wheel motion that keep a show frenetic yet static.”
As its riffs on fraught subjects such as healthcare and gun rights have demonstrated, there’s scant comedic territory where Superstore fears to tread. The series’ boldest swing so far came in seasons 4 and 5, when Mateo, an undocumented immigrant, was detained in an ICE raid and faced deportation—not your usual sitcom material. But Superstore often touches on sensitive subjects in a less dramatic way, as it did in an early line about Cheyenne not getting an abortion because she couldn’t find a ride to Planned Parenthood. “Sometimes we’re most successful when we’re not trying to go right at the issue,” Green says. “It’s just as one part or one conversation in another episode.”
Superstore’s setting, coupled with its previous experience in depicting workers under duress, made it one of the series best equipped to tackle the coronavirus, but it couldn’t do so immediately. The pandemic forced Superstore to tinker with its exit plan for Ferrera, whose farewell was supposed to take place in the Season 5 finale. When the pandemic prevented that episode’s production, Ferrera agreed to postpone her departure until Season 6, the start of which was also slightly delayed. Under the present circumstances, Green says, “Everything is different about how we shoot the show, how we produce the show, how we do our sound mixes. Everything is remote and slower, and shooting the show takes a lot longer.”
None of those hurdles compare to those the sitcom’s characters and their real-life retail equivalents have faced. “The ways that retail workers get mistreated have only been magnified now with the pandemic, especially having to work longer hours to sanitize things, sometimes when they’re off the clock, and all the different procedures and just the risks of being exposed and not always getting hazard pay,” Green says. Miller adds, “We’ve already in the show explored the economic pressures that you can’t necessarily quit the job that is not fulfilling to you, because obviously you have a lot of financial concerns and they’re basically structures keeping you working. And that becomes even more serious and dire when having to do your job also puts your health at risk.” At least the pandemic provided the impetus for Walmart to get rid of its robots.
The Season 6 premiere, “Essential,” recaps the pandemic from the employees’ perspectives, fast-forwarding from the NBA shutdown and the COVID diagnoses of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson through 2020 touchpoints such as Tiger King, panic dreams, and murder hornets. As the crisis continues, the employees’ plight grows progressively worse. A delivery of what seem to be safety supplies turns out to be a shipment of anti-looting equipment. That doesn’t surprise Jonah, who tells his coworkers, “If you wanted to be protected by corporate, you should’ve been merchandise.” Zephra also sends a placard that expresses nebulous support for Black Lives Matter without explicitly saying so, which Garrett derides: “‘Zephra believes in the Black community’? What are we, ghosts?” Cloud 9 is invaded by anti-mask shoppers and toilet paper hoarders, as corporate calls its essential workers “heroes” but fails to take steps to protect them.
In Thursday’s follow-up episode, “California Part 2,” Superstore wrestles with the dissolution of its one true pairing. The series has never treated its romantic relationships as sacred: Mateo and Jeff call it quits and move on, and Garrett and Dina hook up but don’t get too attached. Most feel-good shows would orchestrate a sweetly sentimental end for Amy and Jonah, but although they toast each other in the episode’s closing scene, their breakup is a bitter, painful parting, at least by sitcom standards. “Like with a lot of our endings of episodes, we liked the idea of leaving this a little bit messy,” Green says, although he concedes, “You could still imagine a possibility that they might find their way back to each other.” The mandate may be to feel real as much as possible, but reality is always somewhat skewed on TV.
Superstore’s audience, unlike Community’s, has held steady enough that its fans haven’t had to seize on “six seasons” as a rallying cry to fend off cancellation. As a result, the series reached its centennial episode without much fanfare. “In years past, maybe it would be getting more attention just because the landscape was not as crowded,” Green says. But thanks in part to the series’ accessibility on Hulu and Peacock, he continues, “it feels like a very dedicated group of fans who are watching the show, and it’s growing every season.”
Superstore may lack recognition compared to its NBC antecedents and some of its less unsung sitcom contemporaries. But that lack of acclaim, Miller says, “probably keeps us striving and working for it. We won’t get cocky.” Green chimes in, “We like to be the underdogs.” Underdogs are easy to root for. So is Superstore.