Is NBC’s “Superstore” the Most Woke Show on Television?
*Mild spoilers ahead!
Unexpectedly, one of the television series most willing to tackle serious social issues like immigration comes from a good old network sitcom. I know, color me shocked too. According to most critics and TV addicts, the only daring programming comes by way of prestige television. If it’s not on premium cable, a streaming service, AMC or FX, it’s not worth a conversation, right?
But Superstore, has won me over with its wit and sometimes Office-like uncomfortable comedy — all mixed together with a refreshing dose of cultural relevance. It’s surprising to have NBC sneaking in a subversive, yet still broadly entertaining comedy into their lineup. On Thursday nights, no less! For those of us old enough to remember the glory days of Must See TV, this is certainly a refreshing return.
If you haven’t seen Superstore, you’re missing out. The show is constrained by network standards and practices; Silicon Valley or Veep this is not. But it has the charm of The Office, without the documentary-stylization or occasional mean-spiritedness. This is likely not coincidental. The creator, Justin Spitzer, was a writer on The Office. Superstore follows the employees of a large box store, Cloud 9, which we all know is really Walmart. There’s even elderly greeters! (Side note: Cloud 9 makes an appearance on The Mindy Project when Mindy visits her BFF Peter in Texas. #themoreyouknow)
The cast is diverse, but one thing they all have in common is excellent comedic timing. There’s the “Jim and Pam” of the show, Amy (America Ferrera) and Jonah (Ben Feldman), who have potent will they-won’t they chemistry. We have employee Garrett, who uses a wheelchair, played by Key & Peele alum Colton Dunn. Lauren Ash, a Second City mainstay, portrays the ambitious and intense Dina. She often alienates her colleagues, including her hate-sex partner Garrett. Their bumbling and fearless leader, a more altruistic Michael Scott, is Glenn. Played by Kids in the Hall-er Mark McKinney, Glenn is a well-meaning wannabe father-figure to the ragtag group of employees.
Rounding out the cast is teen mom, Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom), and Mateo (Nico Santos). Mateo is “out” sexually, but not when it comes to his immigration status. The Superstore election episode may not have drawn the praise that Black-ish received, but it did reveal that this character is undocumented. This was notable for several reasons.
Obviously, this has been a hot-button issue in our “build that wall” age and it was nice to see it explored on a major network (CW’s Jane the Virgin has also done an excellent job taking on this issue). Mateo is Filipino, a reminder to viewers that many of the immigrants caught in this debate are not Mexican, as has been the political focus. When Mateo tries to vote, he learns he is undocumented. At first, this sends him on a hunt for the elusive “I Voted” sticker to avoid detection. But as the season progresses, it eventually leads to more serious consequences with his boyfriend, Jeff. Jeff is a district manager and their canoodling means Mateo must be transferred to another store, which would require the examination of his start-up paperwork.
At first, Mateo, Jonah, and Cheyenne try to find a quick way for Mateo to earn a Green Card and avoid a break-up with his OTP. Jonah offers to marry Mateo. But Mateo can’t stomach the idea of being even falsely linked to this pretentious “woke” hipster, instead opting to be the victim of a serious assault. He wants Jonah to beat him up, but Jonah has never been in a fight and gets cold feet. Mateo tries hitting him in hopes he’ll provoke a reaction, but it’s just not in Jonah to be violent. Amid everything else in this episode, Superstore even manages to flip the idea of masculinity on its head.
As in real life, the road to citizenship is not quick or without obstacle. Mateo opts to break up with Jeff to avoid outing himself as undocumented. While the episode certainly contains its usual comedic tones, it is still spiked with melancholy as Mateo must give up his boyfriend to avoid discovery. This is certainly mild compared to what’s happening too often in real life, but for a sitcom, it’s a dark turn to what was a sweet storyline.
Throughout its run, Superstore has tackled plenty of hot button issues, including unionization, health care, sexuality, workplace sexual harassment, and lack of maternity leave for teen mom and eyeshadow enthusiast Cheyenne. We even had a “don’t tell me to smile” moment between Amy and the stockroom leader, Marcus. We’ve seen the two main leads struggle with the direction life has taken them. Amy put her aspirations on hold when she married her high school sweetheart after getting pregnant, and Jonah dropped out of business school early. Like Jim and Pam, they both seem to be lost and underachieving in their professional lives.
Ableism is explored subtly in Superstore. Garrett uses a wheelchair, but this is never played for sympathy. A character on ABC’s Speechless, another network show that tackles this subject matter extremely well, had a spot-on assessment of the media’s typical approach to these characters when he described Inspiration Porn: “It’s a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.”
Garrett is cuttingly funny and observant; he is also a sexual being. Seeing him hit on attractive women or engage in a sexual relationship with Dina, reminds viewers how rare it is to see those in a wheelchair portrayed as sexual within mainstream media. Here, it’s done without comment and that alone says something new. It would be even more groundbreaking if the role was played by someone also differently abled. But that’s an argument for another day.
Superstore can certainly be a slapstick-y, broad comedy at times. But don’t let that fool you. With one of the most diverse casts on network television and a willingness to address hot-button issues without fanfare, this is a show that deserves a second-look.