Superstore’s fifth season finale was more abrupt than its cast and creators would’ve wanted. It was supposed to be the farewell episode for America Ferrera, who plays one of the show’s central characters, Amy Sosa. Her departure loomed all season as a big shift for the show, the kind of bump that many sitcoms have weathered and bounced back from, but nevertheless a massive event on a long-running network show. But like every other TV show this spring, Superstore’s production schedule was affected by the coronavirus shutdown. The episode that would’ve been Superstore’s finale wasn’t made, and Amy’s send-off for a new corporate job in California was compressed into a single, hasty, episode-length story.
Ferrera has said she’ll come back when the show resumes shooting so she can finish Amy’s arc — and co-star Ben Feldman, who plays Amy’s boyfriend Jonah, joked about the situation on Twitter — but it’s a shame Superstore wasn’t able to tell such a significant story the way its writers had originally wanted. A messed-up farewell episode is very, very low on the list of concerns for anybody right now, if it’s even on the list at all, but it’s still sad for the creators and viewers.
Awkward though this finale might be, I’m not worried about Superstore in the long run because it is one of the only shows I’m confident will be able to tell stories about this pandemic that capture how it’s reshaped the world. There will be dozens and dozens of coronavirus stories on TV once productions start up again — it’ll show up on medical dramas and police procedurals, it’ll surely turn into a metaphorical foundation for science-fiction epics, it’ll spark even more dystopian fiction and get filtered down into oddball comedy treatments. But as my colleague Matt Zoller Seitz put it, Superstore is “the only TV series I would trust to deal directly with this period in history.” There are a scant handful of other shows that’ll approach the pandemic in thoughtful ways — I am especially curious about how The Good Fight will weave the coronavirus into its signature mix of seriousness and absurdism — but nothing feels as capable and relevant as Superstore.
Medical dramas like New Amsterdam, Grey’s Anatomy, or Chicago Med will tell stories about what doctors and nurses are experiencing right now. Law & Order: SVU and Blue Bloods and The Rookie will take on the pandemic from the perspective of law enforcement, with varying degrees of gravity. All of those shows will treat the pandemic from valid and worthwhile perspectives; they’ll tell stories about the fast, dramatic, life-and-death decisions that are getting made every hour all over the country. Police procedurals unfailingly start their episodes with dead bodies, and medical dramas inevitably rack up high death tolls. I suspect the body count on these shows, whenever they manage to start production again, will be especially high.
But we already expect police and medical dramas to be intense and sad. Medical dramas are good at telling stories about citywide catastrophes, high-drama disasters, and apocalyptic anxieties that sweep over everyone all at once. It’s not that Grey’s Anatomy won’t be able to convey the overwhelming sadness of the coronavirus death toll but that it’s a show perpetually steeped in tragedy. Nightmarish calamity is bread and butter for SVU. For shows like these, the pandemic will be the story du jour, but it’ll also be what we’re used to seeing.
Superstore is a half-hour comedy about big-box-store employees. By pure chance of its premise, that puts it in a unique position to tell pandemic stories from an especially poignant position. Medical and police dramas treat their doctor and police characters like heroes because they do dramatic, lifesaving things but also because the world has already given them that status. (Heroism has never been as widely associated with nursing, though, which I hope the medical shows will address.) The stockers and checkout clerks and cleaning crew on Superstore, meanwhile, have always been essential employees in our economy, and Superstore has always treated them that way. Goofy and inept and strange though many of them are, Superstore’s ensemble cast of retail employees are people who deserve dignity and compassion. If the show does choose to take on the pandemic, they will be going to work under new, unknown, life-threatening circumstances. It will change Superstore in ways that will feel massive, irrevocable, and terrifying. It’ll feel more like our actual lived experience of these last few months.
All of that is why Superstore is unusually well suited to pivot into pandemic storytelling. It’s a show about the right characters, in the right setting, at this especially overwhelming moment in history. But that alone isn’t why I trust Superstore to do this well. Many of those medical dramas are just as well positioned, after all, and for many of them the leap won’t even be that big. The difference for Superstore is that over its last five seasons, it has maneuvered its way through some of the biggest, most intractable political and social morasses of our time, and it’s done so with unfailing thoughtfulness and care.
Superstore built a long-running plot about unionization and labor rights for years, seeding small developments and big setbacks across long-simmering arcs and managing to do it in ways that feel legitimately character-driven rather than self-satisfied and thematically neat. When Amy got pregnant, the show included a plot about medical coverage and maternity leave. After revealing that Cloud 9 employee Mateo was an undocumented immigrant early in its run, it pulled on that thread for seasons and seasons, resisting easy answers for Mateo and eventually including a story about him being detained by ICE. In season five, the show began dancing around what happens when giant corporations take over smaller retail chains, poking at the superficial progressivism and deep inequality built into the corporate structure and labor practices of companies like Amazon.
It’s not just that Superstore happens to be a show about big-box-store employees right at the moment when the whole world becomes especially aware of retail work. More than any show currently on TV, I trust Superstore to deal with an unprecedented story about safety and the economy and massive wealth disparity and the bitter unfairness of essential workers’ being treated like replaceable subhuman machine parts, because unlike any other TV show on right now, Superstore has the receipts.
No one knows when TV will go into production again, or what the entertainment industry will even look like when it does. Whenever that happens, I think there’ll be more need for escapism than anything else; there’ll be a huge desire for shows about anything other than the trauma everyone’s grappling with right now. But not all fiction will be able to ignore what’s happening right now, nor should it. When the time comes, Superstore will be the only show I truly trust to get it right.