Ah, the workplace comedy. Some of television’s greatest hits were workplace comedies: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Murphy Brown, 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation. It’s a well-trod genre, but a fruitful one nonetheless, because the workplace is where most adults spent the bulk of their lives; it’s also where most adults form friendships, and in some cases, romances, as well. In the workplace comedy, the central character, usually the straight man, is surrounded by a gang of lovable eccentrics who take the place of a nuclear family. Hijinks ensue when colleagues begin to chafe in their constricted, limited roles as defined by their job descriptions. When the workplace is populated by dedicated individuals who have careers, as opposed to just jobs, like in the case of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Murphy Brown, most of the comedy comes from the relationships between the characters. But when the workplace is littered with dead end, mind-numbing work, like The Office, for example, then not only are relationships important, but the drudgery of punching in a time clock is central to the narrative.
With Superstore, NBC is attempting to boast yet another classic workplace sitcom. The problem with Superstore is that it’s highly derivative, owing a lot to The Office, but it does little to distinguish itself. While not a carbon copy of The Office (it’s set in a big box store a la Target or Wal-Mart), much of the setup for Superstore mimics the classic sitcom: like The Office, we have the overqualified, yet underachieving goof, Johah (Ben Feldman, Mad Men), who seems to be biding his time stocking shelves; we also have a beautiful and witty female lead, Amy (America Ferrera, Ugly Betty), who forges a bond with the handsome male lead; and we have the doofy, over-enthusiastic and deeply-needy boss, Glenn (Kids in the Hall alumnus, Mark McKinney). It’s not that Jonah, May, and Glenn are Jim, Pam, and Michael redux, it’s just that we’ve seen this premise already – and we’ve seen it done better. For Superstore to work, it doesn’t necessarily have to reinvent the genre, but it does have to bring something new to the mix.
The premise of Superstore is that recent hire Jonah finds himself trying to eek out some kind of enjoyment and meaning in his job at the fictional Cloud 9. In the show’s first episode, he spotlights how he feels about the job when he flirts with Amy (not knowing she’s an employee at Cloud 9, too), and comments that he’d also be surprised to see someone like him with a job at Cloud 9 – he’s condescending and an ass, but there’s poignancy in his assholery because, joke’s on him – he actually works at Cloud 9. Now, had this show been produced in the mid 1990s, we would’ve felt alright for Jonah, because we know that a guy like him with his smarts would move up and eventually leave his retail job. But since the Great Recession, smart alecks like Jonah have been permanently wedged in these service jobs. As evidence, we have Amy, who has worked at Cloud 9 for ten years.
But not enough is done to examine the reality of over-educated folks like Jonah who are now having to do work they deem menial. In a job market as unstable and in flux as ours, a bright, insightful comedy about the realities of leaving home with expensive degrees only to find oneself working at a cash register would be a devastatingly-on point commentary on the shaky nature of identifying oneself with a job or career.
But Superstore is far more interested in having a store-full of quirky associates display individual eccentricities for our merriment. Along with Jonah, Amy, and Glenn, we also have Dina (Lauren Ash), the assistant store manager, who immediately crushes on Jonah; Garrett (Coldton Dunn), a wise-cracking associate who immediately takes Jonah under his wing; and Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom), an extremely pregnant associate who engenders protective feelings from Amy. Joining Jonah on his first day is Mateo (Nico Santos), a hyper brown-noser, who plunges into his work with a startling energy and enthusiasm, intent on becoming Cloud 9’s superstar.
The main source of conflict comes from Jonah’s feelings of boredom and ennui, and his attempts at breaking it up: sometimes it’s by harmless pranks, other times, he does so by trying to help his coworkers. When Glenn is up for a profile in the company magazine, Jonah takes the opportunity to treat it like a cover story for the New Yorker, thereby injecting some meaning and importance into a nothing honor like being featured on a cover of a company magazine. It’s still to early to tell if he and Amy will find themselves romantically inclined, but their relationship three episodes in, is lopsided in Amy’s favor – he messes up and she swoops in to fix the problem.
Though Ben is ostensibly the lead of the show, the Mary Richards of Superstore, Amy is offered as the straight man of the show. Which is a shame and one of the writers’ biggest mistakes. Fans of Ugly Betty will remember that America Ferrera is a bright and appealing comedienne who has some serious physical/slapstick chops. Unfortunately, in Superstore, she’s saddled with the tired trope of the nagging and disapproving woman – if Jonah was heavier and the two were married, this would be every network family sitcom of the 1990s. Having Ferrera be an uptight scold just wastes the actresses’ estimable talents.
And speaking of wasting comedic talent, watching McKinney, once the comedic equivalent of a punk legend, slum in a middling show like Superstore is pretty depressing. He does what he can with a “funny” voice and permanent grin on his face (that sometimes looks like a rictus of pain).
The other actors acquit themselves well – Feldman coasts on his charms without being seriously taxed; Santos and Bloom do okay in cliched roles. Only Ash and Dunn really shine.
The mediocrity of Superstore perfectly encapsulates NBC’s problem when it comes to programming. Once a sitcom titan, NBC has seen its comedic fortunes dwindle in the last decade or so. 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation were brilliant classics, but let’s face it, they weren’t getting Friends numbers (at its peak, NBC’s Must See TV was getting like 40 million viewers a week – Parks was lucky to get 3 million viewers a week). But they were genius shows, so they were prestige. But they’re gone, now and NBC is a different animal (Thursday’s legendary comedy block as been shuttered). Superstore feels paradoxically lazy yet desperate – it mines NBC’s past glories, but at the same time it does little in terms of innovation.