TV: Superstore (Seasons 5 & 6)

As situation comedies go, Superstore is pretty low concept: it’s a show about a store, and the low-income employees who work there. Without much fanfare, the series recently ended a six-season, 113-episode run, and while it’s not exactly a standout in an era of exceptional TV, it’s a fun series with many strengths and high points.

Superstore’s conventional sitcom set-up combines two familiar genre tropes: the kooky workplace ensemble, and the “will-they, won’t-they” romance. Both aspects of the series have their strong suits, but as season five begins it’s obvious that the latter—a drawn-out, slow-building flirtation between disaffected floor supervisor Amy (America Ferrera) and progressive intellectual Jonah (Ben Feldman)—is running out of a steam. Inevitably, they become a couple, which perhaps defuses the central tension of the show, but really that’s hardly the reason season five feels weak. Amy gets promoted to store manager, and the show simply can’t figure out how to write her once she takes over for cartoonish, demoted former boss Glen Sturgis (Mark McKinney). Glen’s cluelessly absurd leadership is a classic sitcom trope, providing an effective foil for Amy’s relative normality. (Think Colonel Blake/Hawkeye on M*A*S*H, or Mr. Carlson/Andy Travis on WKRP. Superstore is a direct descendant of these classics.) Unfortunately, once Amy is in charge, the plots increasingly require her to be as incompetent as the goofballs on her staff, and it doesn’t ring true to the character. The fact that her promotion doesn’t work rather deadens the sting when Ferrera departs at the beginning of season six, when the comic chops improve considerably. This is no strike against Ferrera, but simply that the show refocuses on what it does best: ensemble hijinks. Feldman, outstanding throughout, does get more of a spotlight, as Jonah’s well meaning, aspirational efforts to improve Cloud 9 constantly blow up in his face. But overall it feels like more of a group show, spreading out the antics to Lauren Ash, Colton Dunn, Kaliko Kauahi, Nichole Sakura, Nico Santos, and the many other talented cast members. (Kelly Schumann’s sassy, over-sharing Justine, in particular, is a gem.)

Season six also delivers Superstore‘s sly, silly sociopolitics. The writers have a much better handle on Jonah’s good-faith, bad-luck samaritanism, a viewpoint that speaks more cogently to Superstore’s unpretentious critique of exploitative capitalism. Yes, the show doesn’t always paint the most flattering portrait of its impoverished, awkward heroes, but it gets away with ribbing them by directing its more scathing barbs at the unforgiving economic system they’re all trapped in. Reorienting on the staff’s collective plight—occasionally up against “Zephra,” the technology giant that acquires Cloud 9 midway through the series—strengthens both the comedy and the subtext, delivering a home stretch of episodes that stirs in generous dollops of subversive humor.

In the greater scheme of TV history, Superstore may not make much of lasting impression. It’s old-fashioned, conventional, frequently uneven, and not at all groundbreaking. But it also shouldn’t be overlooked: a pleasant, steady, genuinely funny comedy with a unique finger on the pulse of the American dream’s ugly underbelly. It certainly did its part to make the Trump years and the pandemic more bearable.

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