Sitcoms in the age of “Peak TV” are often derided as visually uninspiring in comparison with other shows, particularly on cable and streaming, that earn the label “cinematic” —a badge of honor for TV shows these days. (Paging Dr. Freud.) But networks are increasingly producing half-hour comedies that break the living-room mold. Two recent NBC comedies, Superstore and The Good Place, demonstrate how sitcoms can use production design to elevate the ordinary.
On a recent visit to the Superstore set during the TCA Winter Press Tour, production designer Michael G. Gallenberg and costume designer Alix Hester explained how the show aims for an aggressively everyday look. The sitcom is centered on a group of workers at a fictional big-box store in St. Louis, Missouri called Cloud 9, and the production team works to make the characters and sets look as “normal” as possible.
For Hester, that means choosing items and brands that an employee or shopper at a Walmart-like store in the Midwest would actually wear. (Most of Cloud 9’s employees wear their own clothes under their blue work vests.) To get the look, Hester shops at vintage stores around L.A. and ubiquitous bargain chains like J.C. Penney and Nordstrom Rack.
Superstore’s set is basically a re-creation of a big retail chain store, except for subtle clues that you’re on a studio lot and not an actual Walmart or Target: The displays are often moved around, so they’re all on wheels, and there’s only really one built-in aisle, which runs from the back of the store to the cash register at the front. The front doors that appear to lead to the store’s parking lot actually lead to a wall; the store’s exterior and parking lot are located elsewhere on the NBC lot.
But the products lining the shelves are all real (the items in the fridge and freezer are empty boxes, since they’re not actually kept cold), and the displays change with the seasons like they would in any store. (When I visited, the ceiling was festooned with banners promoting National Agricultural Day, which is in March.) Gallenberg, the production designer, makes an effort to include a wide variety of brands so any given shot doesn’t appear to be promoting a particular product. The production team has also created a house brand — like Target’s “up & up” and “Market Pantry” — and if the script includes a gag at the expense of a product, they’re careful to make the Cloud 9 brand the butt of the joke.
In real life, retail chains like Macy’s, Kmart, and, yes, Walmart are closing stores in droves — a pattern that’s bad for business, but good for Superstore. According to Gallenberg, much of Cloud 9’s inventory comes from liquidators in and around L.A., and the show has benefited from the recent shuttering of several Kohl’s outlets, including nine in California alone in 2016.
Other products on display in Cloud 9 come from the brands themselves, which benefit from the exposure but don’t actually pay the show to feature their wares. Gallenberg and Superstore creator Justin Spitzer noted that it’s been a lot easier to get companies to send them stuff now that the show is in its second season and people are more familiar with it. The use of real products adds to the show’s verisimilitude — which is important for a series that aims to reflect the mundane reality of retail workers — but it does have some setbacks for the cast and crew: Both Spitzer and Superstore star/producer America Ferrera confessed that it’s hard to resist taking home items they need at the end of a day of filming.
For Superstore’s production designers, the challenge is to make the world of the show look and feel like real life, and yet include enough visual punch to create an aesthetically appealing mise-en-scène. The Good Place has a different challenge: The show is set in the afterlife, and yet is centered on a woman, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who was mistakenly sent there instead of the Bad Place, where she belongs — a cosmic error that threatens to upend the order of the Good Place. In the pilot episode, The Good Place establishes the rules of its universe: The show’s version of heaven is split up into different “neighborhoods,” each containing exactly 320 people who are paired off with their soulmates and gifted with homes that precisely suit their tastes. Heaven is more familiar than fantastic, a quaint little town full of frozen-yogurt shops and stores called “Your Anticipated Needs” and “Adorable Animal Depot.” Ted Danson plays Michael, the “creator” of Eleanor’s neighborhood.
During a TCA panel, creator Mike Schur defended his decision to stick with NBC, where he’s been working on one show or another continuously since he joined the SNL writing staff two decades ago. Speaking to reporters after the panel, he spoke of the importance of creating “crazy, bold storytelling” for network television and praised Shonda Rhimes for taking big risks on her ABC dramas. The premise of The Good Place alone is pretty bold for network TV, and it’s left critics and viewers musing if the show can sustain itself through several seasons — as opposed to a “hangout show” like New Girl, The Good Place is highly plot-driven.
Schur credits production designer Dan Bishop — who also designed Mad Men and Parks and Recreation — with The Good Place’s vision of the afterlife. The outdoor scenes are shot in the lush Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, which Schur calls “the closest you can get to heaven.” One early conversation between Schur and Bishop centered on Eleanor’s house. “Eleanor’s house is utopia for someone, but that someone is not Kristen Bell’s character,” Schur told me. “All of the furniture is very aesthetically pretty but it looks really uncomfortable to sit on. It’s like when you go to someone’s house who has the exact opposite vibe as you, and you’re like, ‘God, if I had to live here I would kill myself.’”
Schur and his production team were tasked with creating a world that both looks like utopia and feels familiar to the earthlings that inhabit it. For Michael’s office — the first place a person entering the Good Place sees — it was important that it look comforting to humans, even though Michael is “an eternal being who lives in some nebulous void somewhere.” “Everything is dark wood and very warm,” Schur said. “You feel like he’s a doctor who’s giving you good news, that was the idea — ‘Your scan was absolutely clear, everything’s fine.’”
In this bounteous time of TV production, series across the spectrum of broadcast, streaming, and cable are facing increasing pressure to make visually striking series that look more like movies than TV shows. As a result, many viewers have developed a kind of knee-jerk rejection to the brightly lit broadcast network sitcom. But shows like Superstore and The Good Place are living proof that aesthetic innovation and network television are not mutually exclusive. In a way, a network sitcom — which generally revisits the same few characters and places every week — is an ideal setting for imaginative production design: an opportunity for creative minds to de-familiarize a timeworn format.