Superstore’s midseason premiere is January 4th, 8pm on NBC.
By Lacie F
I am a 15-year retail worker. When I hired in at my town’s KMart back in 2001, I never thought that over a dozen years later, I’d still be punching that clock, wrangling shopping carts, and trying to soothe cantankerous shoppers. Of course, I’m better off than I was when I got in the game: I’m a manager now, the job pays well enough that I was able to buy my first home last summer, and I have a group of coworkers that are more like family than a lot of my family. I’d even argue that I’m doing what I always meant to do, which was teaching: we employ a lot of high school students, and it’s my job to help them gain actual job skills.
So anyway, I get prickly at the perception that retail workers are dumb shmucks who are only there because they’re too stupid or lazy to get a “real” job. Retail is a very challenging, fast-paced job. You’re required to make decisions on the spur of the moment, some of which may involve the safety of yourself, your coworkers, and your customers; you have to hit a budget in order to assure profits while maintaining a clean store and acceptable service levels. And the lazy, for the most part, definitely don’t succeed in this field, since you’re expected to be on your feet for your whole shift most days. It’s a tough job, for a wage that doesn’t always seem fair. It’s much, much more than simply scanning items and counting out change, or mopping bathrooms and cleaning up spills.
I approached NBC’s new sitcom Superstore with low expectations, afraid it would be completely low-brow and insulting. Instead, what I found was a surprisingly kind-hearted workplace comedy. Cloud 9, the titular Walmart-esque department store, may be populated by a cast of misfits and weirdos, but they are presented as very human weirdos of varied personalities and backgrounds. Amy, who is ostensibly the show’s emotional center, is a woman who married young and had kids, who’s taking college classes to try to ensure a better future for her family. She’s capable and smart, a little too self-serious at times because of her desire to succeed. America Ferrera plays her as the kind of woman who feels protective of a pregnant teen who works with her, but with an endearingly dorky streak that leads her to pull an increasingly-silly series of pranks with a mannequin.
Jonah, the other main character, is a recent college graduate who hires in with the assumption that he’s slumming it, and it’s his storyline that surprised me the most. The promos and pilot for Superstoreset his narrative up as the story of a know-it-all who looks down his nose at his coworkers, and I was afraid that this would just end up being a show about a privileged white male and the wacky characters he encounters on his way to his “real” life and “grown-up” job. But the show, and Jonah’s coworkers, are too clever to let him get away with this narrative: For every time Jonah acts like a know-it-all, his coworkers–whether it’s capable Amy or canny Garrett–dish it right back to him. After a couple of rocky episodes, Jonah finds his place in the group and the show becomes a totally different animal.
For me, Superstore is at its best when it finds the group banding together to solve a problem, because that is my experience as a retail worker and also because you’re more likely to see a workplace sitcom focus on its characters tearing each other down. My favorite thus far has been “All Nighter,” which finds our motley crew bonding after everyone gets locked in the store accidentally. Though Glenn’s breakdown and the subsequent liquor-fueled rager he throws stretch belief, the camaraderie between coworkers rings true. But there are plenty other instances of the crew helping each other out: “Shoplifter” finds Jonah playing babysitter to Amy’s daughter, who’s not supposed to accompany her mother to work, while Glenn and Dina–two characters who generally clash–combine forces to catch a shoplifter. (The single-minded determination Dina displays while interrogating the suspect, by the way, is 100% accurate–catching a thief is pretty much the highlight of the week for myself and my coworkers.)
Besides the relationships between the characters, a diverse and hilarious supporting cast helps Superstore feel real. The consensus among my group at work is that Garrett, the wise-cracking jack-of-all trades who trains Jonah on his first day, is “the man.” He’s smart, if jaded by his time in retail, seems to know everything about everyone, and isn’t afraid to play the system against itself (“I took four breaks today, so I guess we both got something to brag about.”). Cheyenne, the pregnant teen that Amy frets over, is dumb but sweet, the kind of person you can’t help rooting for, and Mateo, who hires in with Jonah, is adorably committed to succeeding at Cloud 9.
The show’s not without its faults, of course. If NBC renews it for a fourth season – which seems likely, given its steady viewership – I hope they make a few minor tweaks to characters like Dina and Glenn. Dina is just a little too eccentric to be believable, so it’d be nice to see the showrunners tone down her quirks and focus more on her admirable qualities, like her commitment to Cloud 9 and the soft heart that lurks beneath her brusque exterior. And the store manager, Glenn, has been a problem for me from the very beginning; I simply can’t believe that a corporation would put somebody as oblivious and doofy as he seems to be in charge of a store. It’s nice to see a show that bucks the traditional representation of the “evil/bitter/vindictive” manager, but it’s also possible to portray a manager who is kind without being stupid.