At first glance, the NBC comedy Superstore fits the standard network sitcom mold. A group of minimum wage workers at Cloud 9, a brick and mortar big box store, struggle with difficult customers, their complicated personal lives, and obtuse management. Much of the humor is unsubtle, aiming for big laughs with endless banter about sex, the cleanliness of the store, and each employee’s seemingly endless penchant for hyperbole. The show centers around two main characters, Jonah (Ben Feldman), an idealistic but underachieving college dropout, and Amy (America Ferrera), a single mother who is intelligent, cynical, and frankly fed-up with her lack of prospects and her co-workers’ incompetence.
For the first three seasons, the show relied heavily on the old trope of a budding office romance between Jonah and Amy, and the outrageous antics of an ensemble cast desperate to escape boredom and inject meaning into their otherwise unremarkable work lives. Yet there were signs that the show was trying to transgress the boundaries of mindless entertainment. For example Amy consistently wore fake name tags so customers would never know her real name – a nod to the nameless, underpaid human chattel many American workers have become with the decline of the middle class, as well as a reference to both her Latina heritage and her inability to speak Spanish. In effect she had no identity, other than her presence as an employee of the store.
The other cast members represented a diverse and quirky cross-section of contemporary America – a biracial pregnant teen, a wheelchair bound, wisecracking African American with a video game obsession, a devout Christian manager, and Mateo, a Filipino-born member of the LGBTQ community who is revealed in Season 3 to be an undocumented immigrant.
When Superstore was renewed for a fourth season in 2018, few could have expected the political turn the show was about to take. Jason Spitzer, the show’s creator and co-producer Ferrara, the opening speaker at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017, clearly weren’t satisfied with a coveted prime time spot and an opportunity to provide viewers with comic relief from their own soul-sucking work lives.
After the absurdity of the first few episodes in which Amy gives birth to a child fathered by her ex-husband while beginning a relationship with Jonah, the new mother is met with the first of many real-life challenges common to those working in minimum wage retail jobs. Because she has no health insurance, Amy to transfer to a grossly underfunded public clinic with few amenities, and she is forced to return to work two days after giving birth because she does not have maternity leave and must pay for childcare. In two episodes, Superstore became “woke.” The reality for millions of Americans suffering the legacy of Reagan-era tax cuts hit the screen with the unsubtly of Amy’s leaking breasts, postpartum tears, and shredding uterus.
As the fourth season progressed, Amy was given the opportunity to train as a manager, only to realize the shocking discrepancy between managerial and support staff salaries, another reminder of income disparity. Assuming the reins of the store in midseason, Amy is saddled by the head office with the onerous task of implementing draconian budget cuts. And with the prospect of Cloud 9 converting to an online format, she blackmails the corporate office to allow her branch to survive, understanding these cuts are directly tied to human capital, not just profit margins.
Ferrara directed the final episode of Season 4 – ironically entitled “Employee Appreciation Day.” The episode centers on Mateo, whose very presence in the United States is threatened when the vindictive corporate head office, angered over the store’s union activity, deploys ICE agents to root out suspected “illegals.” Mateo is apprehended after a thrilling chase through the labyrinth of aisles of unnecessary vanity items, and the final scene shows him mournfully looking through the window of a van as his friends watch him disappear from their lives.
The scene was handled with the deft juxtaposition of absurdist employee and customer banter, and the painful reality that a man was about to have his life changed radically. Agents are portrayed not as sympathetic fellow-travelers united with the employees in their opposition to authority but the very cold embodiment of authority itself, stripped of emotion and only following orders.
The fan reaction to the final episode was mixed, with some finding the material too difficult to handle, preferring the mindless entertainment format of previous seasons. The inevitable social media comment “don’t ruin this with politics” seemed like the standard dog whistle for people with a vague realization of the death of decency in their country but who don’t want to acknowledge it.
In the 1920’s Paul Whiteman was the most successful musician in jazz. Music historians have criticized him for his commercial appeal, at a time when more “serious” musicians like Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong lived and worked in relative obscurity. To his credit, Whiteman had the means to expose a new form of music to a huge population, many of whom would later seek out the more authentic performances of many, largely African American musicians. In the same way, as a popular prime time network show, Superstore’s message reaches an audience who might otherwise be oblivious or to the plight of both undocumented immigrants and the American Worker. I greatly anticipate the next chapter of the story.