Superstore Shows The World as It Is

The NBC sitcom Superstore is technically set outside St. Louis, Missouri, but the hijinks that take place inside the titular superstore, Cloud 9,  could take place anywhere in America—and that’s what makes the show such a smash. By the end of the first season, which premiered in 2015, it becomes clear that Superstore is truly in a league of its own, able to function as a mirror, a road-map and a salve in this tumultuous time.

Everything about the show feels intimately familiar because it has an aura of being mass-produced—it’s easy to forget, watching the show, that it’s not actually written to take place in a Walmart. The show signals its immersion in our late-capitalist landscape in a variety of ways—from the store layout to the products offered to the matching blue employee vests to the topics breached in the show’s dialogue. The experience of watching the show is akin to reliving mundane aspects of your own life—like grocery shopping—but it’s a comfort. A minor plotline in one episode revolves around a man trying to pick the best possible toothbrush. Another episode involves Amy Dubanowski (America Ferrera), the female lead, studying for a midterm in night school. The second season premiere recreates the hokey, patriotic displays and rituals of chain stores during the Olympics.

In this way, Superstore is a mirror for our modern culture—we recognize so much of ourselves, our values and habits, in its storylines. But in the tradition of truly great sitcoms, Superstore imbues these ordinary interactions with a deeper humanity, nobility and importance. It demonstrates the heart in even small acts—selling salsa dressed in a sombrero, as in one episode, or creating a gay marriage-themed wedding display, as in another. A review of the show’s season 3 premiere episode published on Vox recently called it, “The Next Great American Sitcom,” precisely for this reason. According to the writer, such a sitcom  is “so understanding of America’s soul that it bypasses the intellect and burrows straight into the heart of the country.”Superstore is pithy and hilarious, but it doesn’t try to be clever, or smarter than its audience. Watching it feels more like talking to a friend than listening to a moral lecture, a la The West Wing.

The tensions between Cloud 9’s coworkers—whether romantic, religious, cultural or racial— also feel eerily reflective of those any one of us could experience in a modern workplace. The conflicts—sometimes trivial, sometimes ridiculous—nonetheless ring so true that Superstore can successfully act as a road-map to viewers. In its pilot episode, Jonah Simms (Ben Feldman) is hired as a new employee, reporting to Amy, a decade-long employee and current floor supervisor. Immediately two dynamics are at play—gender and class. Jonah goes to help Amy after she knocks down a toilet paper display, but before he knows she is his boss. In an attempt to showboat, he informs her he’s happy to help, even though he doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would “work in a place like this,” implying that there’s a divide between those with traditional kinds of privilege and those who have working-class jobs. Amy, rightly, calls out this prejudice, and later in the show they develop a friendship, but their interactions are a masterclass in how to navigate class tension and how to empathize with life experiences disparate from your own.

The show also, quietly, makes another argument, as it demonstrates the centrality of the superstore to “American life” and also builds interesting, joyful, relatable storylines for its working-class characters: These people and their labor are foundational and essential to a functioning society, so we should compensate them duly.

It’s easy to indulge in hopelessness and hate. Tribalism is easy—believing that you are fundamentally different from those whose race, class, gender, sexuality or general value system is different from yours and thus any attempt to understand them would be fruitless, that’s easy. But Superstore shows you that there is enormous weight and humanity in even “tiny, decent things,” to quote Danusha Veronica Goska, and that ultimately, we’re all the same: human, flawed, but lovable, striving and bound (hopefully) for happiness. It’s a salve I know I need.