It’s difficult to remember what the world was like in November 2015. Less than six years ago, it feels like another lifetime. Then, pandemics on our current scale seemed like occurrences of the past. Donald J. Trump had not yet been elected president, although he had announced his candidacy earlier that summer to rancorous laughter and skepticism; in the end, the joke was on the entire country. But in the realm of television where comedy is actually the point, among that year’s fall premieres emerged Superstore, a show that from the outset was undeniably funny and remained that way through its final season, concluding Thursday, March 25. And amid the perpetual conversations about onscreen representation that have taken different forms over the last six years, Superstore has stood out as one of the few to get it right — and seemingly without trying too hard.
In a period where “middle America” has taken on a central role in the country’s politics, the coincidence of Superstore being set in St. Louis was perfect timing. It’s true that on the show, St. Louis is more backdrop than character; but even in its shadows, the city operates more as an idea of a midsize American metropolis away from the coasts, with the idiosyncrasies of a space that has some of the access of a big city with the pleasantries of a small town. Rather than play into stereotypes or completely ignore them, the show offered an evolved depiction of the region that is closer to the truth: a place of varied people with varied politics that don’t fit neatly into the country’s dichotomies of conservative or liberal, religious or secular, patriotic or apathetic.
At first, the premise of the show appears to center on Jonah (Ben Feldman), a business-school washout who takes a job at a giant retail store, Cloud 9, presumably a stand-in for Walmart. But viewers are soon disabused of any presumptions that the show will replicate yet another narrative of a lost white man seeking meaning in life from supposedly simpler people. Indeed, while the show has given Jonah an ongoing arc of his own — one that intersected with that of Amy (America Ferrera) prior to her departure in the final season — the hallmark of the show is the complexity it affords a large cast of characters, who collectively represent the multifaceted realities of working-class people within the workplace and beyond it.
A highlight among these portrayals is Superstore’s presentation of Amy as a Latina woman who is not rigidly defined by this identity but is also self-conscious of it both internally and among her co-workers. In the third episode of season one, when Amy realizes she has to perform “Latinaness” in order to boost sales at a salsa sample booth, the incident speaks to both the commodification of identity and the expectations for those who bear it to present a certain way. It’s a continuous narrative that Amy contends with at different points, but crucially, it’s not her only narrative; Amy is also at the center of the show’s outstanding commentary on sexism, sexuality, and women’s bodies.
At the start of Superstore’s fourth season in 2018, when Amy and Jonah return from their suspensions following a filmed sexual encounter, their co-workers praise Jonah while avoiding Amy, assuming she feels humiliated for reasons beyond getting caught. Frustrated at this double standard, Amy expresses her enjoyment of sex, pointing to her being pregnant as proof. Subsequently, the show addresses the power differential between Amy and Jonah, the former being the latter’s supervisor, succinctly underscoring the oft-overlooked complexity of how sex, power, and consent intersect in the Me Too era. Dina (Lauren Ash), Superstore’s uninhibited assistant manager who is also pregnant at the same time as Amy, though as a surrogate, complements Amy’s self-consciousness (and miserable pregnancy) almost perfectly. Her sexual prowess already well-established by this point, Dina’s desires and straightforward expressions of them aren’t suspended during her pregnancy. In fact, the ordeal highlights her desire to exist beyond the male gaze and own her sexuality — and by extension, her body — without that desire consuming the character to achieve obvious political objectives.
Among Dina’s lovers, and the final subject of her affections before the series comes to a close, is Garrett, a Black wheelchair user portrayed by Colton Dunn. There are, of course, legitimate and valuable critiques of Dunn portraying Garrett while not being disabled himself, the most trenchant being the already limited roles given to actors with disabilities, as Dunn himself addressed in 2018 (and which the show itself seemingly acknowledged with the late-stage addition of Nicole Lynn Evans in a recurring season-six role). It is also true that a disabled person being rendered as a full person beyond their disability — including being a disabled person who has sex — is a rare occurrence onscreen. It’s a marker of the show’s intelligence that the joys, challenges, and everyday problems experienced by its characters could have everything to do with specific aspects of their identity — or nothing at all. In one season-three episode, Jonah tries to discover how Garrett was paralyzed, but he doesn’t find out, and neither do we. Garrett, like Dina, like all the show’s characters, is not occupied by the identity that marks him as different. In this way, simply, quietly, and humorously, Superstore mirrors life.
Still, the show’s diverse and good-humored portrayals should never be mistaken for agnosticism; its progressive politics were always clear. But the political messages it transmitted seldom arrived without meaningful narratives to accompany them, even when they were on the nose. Its host of characters of color, such as Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura), Sayid (Amir M. Korangy), and Janet (Carla Renata), alongside older characters such as Myrtle (the late Linda Porter) and Brett (Jon Miyahara) who added to the show’s age diversity, offered subplots that utilized their salient identities without reducing them to only that. This season’s inclusion of Nia (Franchesca Ramsey), a Black lesbian who at first appears to be Jonah’s new love interest, is one example of an identity-based narrative that exposes other characters’ assumptions. Even in her minor role, Superstore avoids using Nia as a prop, and instead, the revelation is a joke on Jonah’s preconceptions, and by extension ours.
In terms of bigger story lines, the series’s chronicling of Mateo (Nico Santos), an undocumented, gay Filipino American, is among its masterclass illustrations of the intricacies of (un-)citizenship, belonging, and intersectionality. Added to that is this season’s incredible showcase of how, in attempts to superficially address racial injustice, corporations inadvertently make more work for Black employees. With its use of the show’s well-meaning but oblivious manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) and its resident politically incorrect white voices — namely Marcus (Jon Barinholtz) and Isaac (Steve Agee) — the show pays tribute to the many post–George Floyd corporate initiatives that have gone awry. Marcus, Isaac, and even annoyingly ignorant Justine (Kelly Schumann) often provoke the overt conversations about identity politics, which skillfully avoids placing the onus on the characters of color to do so. But a pizza party intended for Black employees turning into an All Lives Matter pizza party? A stroke of comedic genius that doubles as commentary on how initiatives to address anti-Black racism are often derailed from their purpose.
Through all of these story lines, Superstore always underscored the characters’ working-class sensibilities and their precarious economic conditions. It was the common thread uniting Cloud 9’s employees and allowed the show to exhibit a genuine picture of working-class life: wide-ranging, nuanced, and always meeting at a myriad of intersections. Many of Superstore’s characters live on the margins, or close to them, contemplative of their conditions without needing an outsider to explain it to them. A lot of the time, they’re just trying to get through the day, and when they can, they attempt to alter those conditions without becoming disillusioned by failed efforts because they’re already aware of how the world they live in works.
This conflict of seeking change while not getting lost in the search for it comes through most clearly in the employees’ ongoing attempts throughout the series to organize a union. The endeavor is eventually curtailed in the fifth season by Cloud 9’s new parent company Zephra, underscoring the stark reality of labor organizing against a capitalist structure that will morph in order to maintain power. With this final season’s added focus on COVID-19 and its disproportionate effect on frontline working-class employees, Superstore further nails their vulnerability and, simultaneously, the limitations they face in changing their circumstances. As always, the jokes softened the blow of its candor, but the outcome of this story line endures as a telling referendum on the difficulty of confronting and combating power.
As Superstore comes to an end, it’s too late to give it all the flowers it deserves, but it’s not too late to uphold it as having set a standard for the TV sitcom, particularly of the workplace variety. On the show, performing diversity and representation was not the primary objective, nor was it an accessory used after the fact to make flimsy points. Instead, the show viewed the world through a lens that reflected the material and affective differences between people, while honoring their existence beyond the identities they represent. In telling these truths time and again, in different ways, the series was a lighthouse to all storytellers; through the many lifetimes we’ve endured politically and culturally since 2015, Superstore always shined.