Superstore: the workplace sitcom the world needs right now

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You’ve already devoured Schitt’s Creek. You’ve run out of Ted Lasso. You’ve ploughed through Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and your soul hungers for more. You need another sitcom where you can lose yourself in the stories of basically good people who are just trying their often-inadequate best.

I have good news to share.

Superstore has regularly flicked up on my Netflix recommendations and I always happily scrolled past without a second thought. After all, there have been so very many utterly ghastly contemporary sitcoms about Wacky Shenanigans In A Department Store that the mere sight of someone with a shopping cart was like a flash of red on a prey animal: don’t touch this, for only poison awaits. (“Remember how you tried to watch Trollied?” it seemed to whisper, “Or, dear god, Rostered On? This way lies only pain.”)

Related: Never Have I Ever: I binged Mindy Kaling’s coming-of-age show. I’ve never felt so seen

I would have clicked sooner had I realised that the stars included Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera, Mad Men’s Ben Feldman and legitimate comedy royal Mark McKinney, one-fifth of the legendary Canadian sketch troupe The Kids In the Hall. Instead, I knew nothing about the show when, in a TV dry spell, I eventually clicked play on the first episode. I figured it would become one of the many sitcoms I opted out of 20 minutes in and which lived on forever in my “Continue Watching?” queue. How wrong I was.

The show was created by Julian Spitzer, one of the writers on the US version of The Office (the same writers room which launched Michael Schur, the genius behind The Good Place, Parks & Rec, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the new Rutherford Falls) – and Superstore shares that show’s commitment to diverse ensemble casts and a breakneck laughs-per-minute rate.

It’s set in Cloud 9, a big box retailer of the Walmart/Target stripe, and follows the lives, loves and unidentifiable smells of the floor staff: exhausted sales associate Amy Sosa (Ferrera), college dropout new hire Jonah Simms (Feldman), haughtily catty undocumented immigrant Mateo Liwanag (Nico Santos), teenage mother-slash-would-be-influencer Cheyenne Thompson (Nichole Sakura), aggressively filterless assistant manager Dina Fox (Lauren Ash) and gormless store manager Glenn Sturgis (McKinney).

The core ensemble are a powerhouse, but the supporting cast are equally first-rate comedic actors – especially Kaliko Kauahi, an extra promoted to the regular cast due to her amazing performance as the endlessly put-upon Sandra Kaluiokalani.

What’s especially brilliant about the show is that manages to deftly address real world issues, including the perils of non-union workplaces, the utter horror that is the American healthcare system, immigrants in the Trump era, corporate indifference to worker safety, the Black Lives Matter movement. In the sixth and final season, the pandemic hits, and the staff of Cloud 9 are simultaneously hailed as heroes by their corporate overlords, and forced to cut up unsold teddybears to make their own PPE.

And if that sounds horribly po-faced, be advised that Superstore is also gloriously, hilariously, gleefully stupid. Most shows would shy from a running joke about random feet being discovered in the store, speculation about the genitals of Cloud 9’s apparently sexually active corporate logo, or whether Radiohead’s Creep is the right ukulele song to perform at a funeral.

Another reason it can deal with quote-unquote issues without disappearing up its own woke-hole is Feldman’s elegant portrayal of Jonah as a well-meaning lefty who is as great at identifying everything that’s wrong with America as he is bad at enacting any sort of positive change. It contrasts neatly with the more pragmatic Amy who admires his well-meaning middle-class idealism even while pointing out it’s something she, as a child of working-class immigrants, absolutely cannot afford.

The main thing a comedy needs of course is to be is funny, which Superstore comprehensively is. But it’s hard to think of too many US comedies where the protagonists are working poor who don’t live in implausibly enormous apartments – much less in a world where a change in hours or a loss of childcare is a dramatic beat as much as a comedic one. There’s Roseanne, of course and then … what?

In a few years this will be a time capsule of a sort of shopping experience entirely replaced by Amazon drones and gig slavery. But for now, let it be a reminder that our frontline retail workers are the real heroes of the pandemic. As long as they supply their own masks, obviously.

  • Superstore is streaming on Netflix (seasons 1-5) and Binge (all seasons)

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