I have been meaning to write an appreciation of the NBC sitcom Superstore for a while. I have loved it for years; I fell in love somewhere around the end of its second season, and since then it’s been a constant, thrumming source of joy in my TV calendar. When I first fell for the show I meant to write something about how great it is, how silly and warm and keenly observed. But I kept getting distracted. It was never the buzziest or most attention-grabbing show. It never seemed to crest into broader cultural awareness, in spite of how notably radical its stories were becoming.
Then at the end of the most recent season, the comfortable world that Superstore had built for four years suddenly swerved. I’d kept setting aside Superstore for another day, and the characters had been doing something similar, trying to forget about the lurking red flags in their not-quite-happy but mostly functional status quo. As does tend to happen with the loose ends you mean to get around to but never do, Superstore became urgent almost all of a sudden, within its own world and also within ours. So now, at long last and at least a little too late, I am making time to tell you to watch Superstore, and I am telling you that there is no comedy out there more deserving of an Emmy nomination.
Superstore is a show about people who work at a big-box store called Cloud 9, and much of the show’s deceptive greatness over its four seasons has been in how familiar and comfortable it feels. It is a half-hour sitcom, one of the sturdiest TV formats out there, and the show’s humor comes from the everyday annoyances and absurdities you could imagine encountering at any Target or Walmart in your neighborhood. Someone ordered too many popsicles, and now there’s nowhere to store all of these melting popsicles. A customer just trashed the bathroom. The work schedule this month is causing problems. There’s a blizzard. It’s the same kind of quotidian frustration that powered years and years of The Office or Parks and Rec, but because Superstore’s retail employees are constantly in contact with customers, the physical reality of stories like the release of a popular video game makes Superstore feel even more mundane and more grounded.
The trouble with all of those constant everyday annoyances is that they’re so wearing, they become such an inescapable grind, that they consume all of everyone’s energy. Many of its employees are caught in their daily rhythms. They have tripped their way into circumstances that only barely keep them afloat: jobs that schedule them just below 40 hours a week so that Cloud 9 doesn’t need to pay them health care, hourly wages that let them survive but never let them save. Cloud 9 is just enough of a stopgap that no one feels pressed into making any sudden changes, in their work or in their private lives. Amy (America Ferrera) spent years working on the retail floor, often the most senior and competent person in her area, without ever considering that she might move into a management role. Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) is in love with a guy named Jerry (Chris Grace), and he loves her back, but somehow they got trapped in a situation where they weren’t together and it’s taken them years to figure it out. The first episode of Superstore was also the first day for a new sales associate named Jonah (Ben Feldman), though he only thought of the job as temporary while he figured out his next move. Four years later, he’s still there. These are all stories about how easy it is to get stuck.
The most dramatic illustration of being trapped at Cloud 9 belongs to Mateo (Nico Santos), an employee who learns early in Superstore’s second season that he’s an undocumented immigrant. He stumbled into his current job — he started the same day as Jonah — but he can’t move to another company or even get transferred to another Cloud 9 location because his immigration status could get flagged. Superstore has told many stories about Mateo’s precarious employment over its four seasons. There was the time he broke up with a Cloud 9 manager he really liked because continuing their relationship would’ve required him to transfer to another store location, something that would’ve flagged his SSN. There was the bit about how other Cloud 9 employees unsuccessfully tried to get Mateo registered as a refugee. There was a story about how Mateo got hurt and refused to get medical treatment because of his undocumented status.
Superstore has been pulling on this thread for years, but even in moments when things seemed dire, Mateo’s immigration status has always gotten tucked neatly back into the safe boundaries of its funny sitcom ethos. So even though this story has been one of the longest-running undercurrents on the show, and even though I’m well-informed about the current state of immigration policy in the United States, it still came as a shock to me when, at the end of Superstore’s fourth season, a crew of ICE agents show up at Cloud 9 and carry Mateo off to a detention facility. His co-workers rally around him, doing some desperate, classic sitcom-style maneuvers to try to get him safely out of the store, and up until the last possible moment, it really seems like Mateo might be able to escape. It seems impossible that things won’t curl back into the safe status quo of a mostly happy show about financially insecure big-box-store employees whose labor is exploited for corporate gain. But the final image of the season is of Mateo being driven away in a Homeland Security detention van, and of his friends and co-workers standing outside in the rain, looking on helplessly.
My sense of shock is a product of Superstore’s stealthy genius. I was lulled by the form. The show gave me plenty of hints, but its sweetness and goofiness, the overall sense that things would mostly be okay, made me feel too safe. Its absolutely convincing masquerade as a half-hour network sitcom worked remarkably well, and there were enough close calls about Mateo’s status that I began to believe it would just work out somehow.
Mateo’s story is hardly the only way Superstore has pulled this trick, either. The fact that the show is so rooted in the everyday has given it license to tell essential stories about the very normal obstacles of normal life in America. Amy has to go back to work two days after giving birth because Cloud 9 gives her no maternity leave. The company frequently knocks down the nascent unionizing efforts among its employees. It cuts hours, giving its employees no recourse to make sure they still make a living wage. And because the show’s bigger ideas are so rooted in the lives of its characters, they’re hidden in plain sight. They’re not attention-seeking bids for sudden political relevance. They’re just stories about the naked practicalities of being hourly wage retail employees in St. Louis. By the time the show started slipping in radical critiques of capitalism, the U.S. health-care system, and the myth of caring megacorporations, those stories felt like a simple, obvious part of Superstore’s warm and funny and unflinching ethos.
I put off writing about Superstore for too long, and I did it in part because in spite of how much I loved it, the show never seemed to leap into unignorable immediacy. That idea is also what Superstore’s fourth season finale is about — not that TV critics should take the time to write about shows they love as soon as they love them, which would be a hilariously tiny lesson on the cosmic scale — but about the risks of waiting until exigent circumstances make something suddenly necessary. Mateo’s arrest is about immigration policy and the human cost of broad-scale political maneuvering. Like so much of Superstore, it’s about the way abstract policy plays out in individual lives. But it’s also about how dangerous it is to ignore the things right in front of us. When we do that, we risk ignoring something that more than deserves our love and attention. Believe me when I tell you: Superstore’s time is now.