BARNHART

How Late-Blooming Superstore Found Its Way

Critics weren't always kind, but NBC's quirky big-box comedy got the last laugh.
  • The cast of Superstore in 2015. (NBC)
    The cast of Superstore in 2015. (NBC)
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    In more ways than one, the two-part series finale of Superstore, airing tonight on NBC, marks the end of an era. It’s the closing curtain to a little workplace comedy that defied the odds of modern television, ultimately lasting for six seasons and 112 episodes. Its ending also leaves a hole in NBC's schedule that sees the network entering its spring season without a single Thursday night comedy for the first time since since Sam Walton, the patron saint of Cloud 9, was still kicking.

    As we raise a glass farewell, it's worth looking back at how we got here. While the show exits NBC a signature comedy for the network, that wasn't always the case. Also, for those haven't watched the entire series run (or are considering a re-watch), I have a time-saving tip for where to start if you want to enjoy Superstore at its creative peak.

    Season 1: Deeply discounted

    Very few shows get a second look, which is why things didn’t look too hot for Superstore when it was first unboxed back in 2015. Another workplace comedy created by a producer on The Office, Superstore felt a lot like one of those knockoffs you find in discount stores. And there were a lot more of those puns in the early reviews, which were mixed at best.

    The premise: Cloud 9 is a sprawling big-box retailer in St. Louis whose ragtag band of long-term employees form a bond despite low pay and various on-the-job humiliations. Something of a Walmart Supercenter or maybe a French hypermart, Cloud 9 offers an amazing array of products and endless setups for jokes about retail culture and mindless consumerism.

    The highly diverse crew of employees is led by Amy, played by America Ferrera, and Jonah (Ben Feldman), a new hire who only plans to stay at Cloud 9 until something better comes along. Garrett, played by Colton Dunn, is Cloud 9’s wheelchair-bound store announcer. Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) is a Hawaiian who plays ukelele covers of Radiohead songs. Mateo (Nico Santos) is an undocumented immigrant. The assistant manager Dina (Lauren Ash) is a vegan and bird lover. The store manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) is Ned Flanders in the flesh. So it’s diverse … but oddball-diverse.

    Critics initially seized on two problems with the show. First, it wasn’t that good at satirizing big-box culture. After two episodes EW’s Jeff Jensen concluded that Superstore “thinks it’s not condescending when actually it is. Most of this is due to the depiction of Cloud 9’s low-to-middle-class customers, all scuzzy, trashy, idiotic gluttons the show doesn’t try to understand.” Rob Owen agreed: “It’s difficult for the show to have it both ways,” he argued, noting that Superstore “alternately mocks People of Wal-Mart types while trying to protect the dignity of the store’s employees.”

    The second problem was that it seemed a poor imitation of The Office. Justin Spitzer, the creator of Superstore, was a writer-producer on The Office, and just like the Yeti knockoff drinking cup you found at Target, critics compared it unfavorably to the original. “Everything you see, and every joke you hear, is being recycled — making this less a superstore than a consignment shop,” complained Robert Bianco in USA Today.

    Still, as some pointed out, there were bright spots. One was the ensemble itself, which seemed to find its chemistry within a few episodes. The other was the show’s willingness to explore what Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times called “that most vexing of 21st-century problems: What is appropriate on-the-job behavior, whether it’s in reference to flirting with co-workers, hawking salsa or commenting on Garrett’s wheelchair?” Superstore, Genzlinger concluded, “has intelligence beneath its flippancy.”

    Seasons 2-5: Satisfaction guaranteed

    For those considering watching or re-watching the series (all six seasons are currently available on NBC.com, Hulu and Peacock), you’ll definitely want to watch the pilot of Superstore. From there, however, you could (and probably should) skip ahead to Season 3, where all the show’s promise — the relationships, the storylines, the social satire — is satisfyingly fulfilled.

    By this time, Amy has gotten divorced and promoted, and her budding attraction to Jonah has developed. In the tradition of Cheers, the two were clearly generating sparks and heading for something.

    Superstore “has developed into a really solid workplace comedy,” Brian Tallerico wrote in 2017, noting that the “really solid ensemble” required “about a year to click and adjust to each other’s rhythms but have completely done so by now.” Inkoo Kang noted that “no other series even attempts to capture the tremendous variety within Asian America, much less to do so unassumingly,” heralding Superstore for presenting “one of TV’s most promising and progressive visions of our country.”

    Season 6: Lights out

    As Season 5 wound down, America Ferrera announced it was time to move on. But COVID had other ideas, which the show’s writers found a way to put to good use. The Season 6 premiere, titled “Essential Workers,” would have everyone in Cloud 9 wearing masks, as they would for the rest of the season. That episode, Kevin Fallon wrote last fall in The Daily Beast, was “hilarious, poignant,” and “the only good TV episode about the pandemic.” Ferrera's exit came an episode later, followed by NBC's January announcement that the series would be closing up shop at the end of the season.

    While fans of the show are unhappy that the show is ending, the future of TV appears to be fewer episodes, not more, as evidenced by how quickly Netflix pulls the plug on its series. So perhaps fans of Superstore owe NBC a debt of gratitude for keeping the show going as long as it did. Amy’s storyline was kept open, allowing her to return for the series finale, a very satisfying ending that imagines life after COVID and after Superstore for the ragtag gang of Cloud 9.

    The final two episodes of Superstore air on NBC March 25th at 8:00 PM ET.

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    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Superstore, The Office (US), America Ferrera, Ben Feldman, Justin Spitzer, Mark McKinney