It’s easy, and probably accurate, to write off the 2016 midseason as largely a bust.
This time last year, Empire‘s Lyon dynasty announced itself with the (sorry) deafening roar of a titanic performance from Taraji P. Henson as ex-con and would-be record mogul Cookie, a success matched only by the series’ ratings, which seemed teleported from an earlier era of network ubiquity. And it was fortified by the arrival of Fresh Off the Boat, a family sitcom that shared Empire‘s effortless specificity and star-making performance by a female lead. Together, the two shows managed to divert at least some of critics’ attention — and more importantly, viewers’ eyeballs — away from the traditionally sexier competition on streaming and cable, not to mention catalyze the diversity-on-TV conversation’s shift from “trend pieces on trend pieces” to “new status quo?”
Compare that to the early months of 2016, in which HBO and FX have successfully recaptured the mic with warmed-over antihero clichés and the most multi-layered examination of race and gender yet, respectively. The networks, meanwhile, have seemingly reverted to treating midseason as a time to halfheartedly launch shows that weren’t a high enough priority for fall: a cop show starring J. Lo is still yet another cop show; ditto one starring Satan himself, even if an X-Files lead-in virtually guarantees it’ll live to fight another day. And while both of those series are ratings successes, they don’t exactly speak to the creative health of broadcast television — though in all fairness, these days, what does?
There is, however, one notable exception.
Superstore aired the final episode of its first season Monday night, with network NBC announcing the sitcom’s renewal just hours later. That’s great news for more than just the Peacock, which, between this and The Carmichael Show, finally seems ready to dig out its comedy brand from somewhere beneath the rubble of Must See TV. It’s a welcome development for viewers, too, because in just 11 episodes, Superstore rapidly developed from a pleasant ensemble show into the most interesting new comedy of the year.
It’s easy enough to see why Superstore hasn’t, or hasn’t yet, attracted the same level of vocal advocacy that’s greeted ABC’s family sitcom bloc or even Carmichael. Marketing has bundled the show together with the inferior Telenovela, with which it airs back to back, and its premise is too familiar to serve as much of a hook. Created by former Office writer Justin Spitzer, Superstore’s premise follows the formula we’ve come to expect from the lower branches of that show’s family tree: a workplace ensemble comedy, anchored by a strong cast whose dynamic gels surprisingly early. But Superstore abandons the fundamental optimism of Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and their co-creator Mike Schur in favor of a more unflinching look at life under late capitalism.
That’s a direct result of its setting, which swaps out well-meaning, under-resourced government workers for well-meaning, under-resourced laborers for an indifferent, over-resourced corporation. Cloud 9, Superstore‘s namesake emporium, is a clear analog to Target and Wal-Mart, and its workforce has the makeup and everyday problems to match. America Ferrera stars, and produces, as floor supervisor Amy, a working mom struggling with finances and childcare; Ben Ginsberg, of Mad Men and short-lived rom-com A to Z, completes the will they, won’t they as Jonah, business school dropout and resident newcomer/fish out of water. In some ways, Jonah’s clearly intended as an audience surrogate, but we’re immediately cautioned against sharing his subconscious assumption that, like Piper Chapman, he shouldn’t be here, even as he implies his now-coworkers very much should.
Amy is the show’s true lead, though she shares the spotlight with an array of fully realized and, yes, diverse characters: teen-mom-to-be Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom); milquetoast, evangelical manager Glenn (Mark McKinney); cheerfully apathetic, wheelchair-bound announcer Garrett (Key and Peele alum Colton Dunn); needlessly competitive brown-noser Mateo (Nico Santos). Assistant manager Dina threatens to be a beat-for-beat echo of the “heterosexual butch” aesthetic Melissa McCarthy patented in Bridesmaids, but a committed performance from Lauren Ash manages to deepen, and thus rescue, the role.
Though it’s significant that Superstore features a Latina protagonist — one of three such shows to premiere this winter on NBC alone — and supporting players whose ethnicity, disability, and pregnancy are neither mysteriously elided nor made to define them, the series adds something both new to and largely missing from the current dialogue about representation on TV: class.
With its finely tuned ear for corporate jargon, The Office‘s influence on Superstore is obvious. But Superstore takes place in a very different kind of workplace, and Spitzer takes the opportunity to pivot from white-collar ennui to the more material, and sometimes more acute, frustrations of low-wage workers. Amy has to bring her daughter to Cloud 9 because both she and her husband are working, then gets penalized for it; employees face condescension from the likes of Jonah and a potential shoplifter played by Natasha Leggero, who hurls epithets at her interrogators. In the finale, Cheyenne gives birth to her baby mid-shift because she doesn’t have paid maternity leave — and when Glenn is fired by an anti-union shill from corporate for finding a way to give her some, it sparks an impromptu walkout.
These conflicts, and the heightened stakes that often come with them, increase not only Superstore‘s dramatic range, but its comedic one as well. Television’s limited economic spectrum is frequently observed or even parodied, though rarely corrected; Master of None is groundbreaking in many ways, but Dev’s apartment remains ludicrously nice for an underemployed actor. Yet the creative case for other forms of representation — of women, of people of color, of mental illness — is equally true of socioeconomic status: more stories reflect and resonate with more people, not to mention give creators more options.
Which is why there’s something remarkable about watching the plight of the modern American laborer broken into three acts and shot through with one-liners. Perpetual part-timing, lack of bargaining power, and the mundane silliness of a corporation treating the people whose labor it’s exploiting like children are all things a vast (and, in the age of Uber, increasing!) portion of America’s workplace puts up with every day, and almost never sees onscreen. Sometimes, the carefree, jobless existences of so many a hangout sitcom cast provide a needed escape from those inconveniences. Sometimes, however, it’s cathartic to see them exposed for the borderline-surreal representations they are. Superstore does just that.
The first season of Superstore is available to stream on Hulu.