RIP ‘Superstore,’ a Sharp Workplace Comedy That Was Unafraid to Change With the Times

It felt surreal to see “Superstore” wind down to its final episodes. Despite running six full seasons at a time when sitcoms more and more rarely get the chance, “Superstore” never had a dip in quality that signaled its natural end. It was consistently, impressively funny and adaptable. That its creators would have to eventually figure out the curveball of a premature cancellation, and that they nailed it, makes a sad but fitting end for a show that always embraced the opportunity to change with the times.

Many people, myself included, have written plenty about how well “Superstore,” a sitcom about the employees of a Walmart-esque big box store, dealt with capital i Issues over the years. Its first two seasons alone tackled topics like gun control, birth control, racism and the everyday peril of being undocumented, as well as a union drive that would eventually fold under incredible corporate pressure. It was one of the first shows to incorporate Donald Trump’s election victory into its reality without it taking over the entire story. It constantly underlined how dehumanizing the experience of working for a behemoth corporation can be, from that failed unionization effort, to the indignity of its laughable “maternity leave,” to the very real danger of having to physically work in the store during a pandemic. Vanishingly few stores center working class people, let alone their experiences at work, in the way that “Superstore” could, and the show made the most of it with sharp stories that rarely waded into Very Special Episode territory. Every Issue listed above has distinct roots in the show’s characters, from new mom Amy (executive producer America Ferrera) to misplaced religious fervor from store manager Glenn (Mark McKinney), to the store’s break room becoming a house divided on election day.

“Superstore” deserves to be celebrated for the deft way in which it handled increasingly fraught topics. But it also deserves recognition for the smart way in which it told those stories, using and twisting sitcom conventions to make one of the best workplace comedies around.

Take, for instance, the show’s central romance between jaded floor manager Amy and pretentious new guy Jonah (Ben Feldstein). Framed as a classic “opposites attract” couple, Amy and Jonah spent most of the first season arguing with each other in a way that made it clear they’d inevitably end up kissing at the most inopportune time, given enough time. Sure enough, they did exactly that during a chaotic tornado lockdown that ended up broadcast throughout the entire store for all their coworkers to see. But as Ferrera confirmed to Variety just this week, there was always a sense that despite their star-crossed setup, Amy and Jonah might not end up together forever. Even when Amy got divorced and they became an official couple, the show made clear just how different they really are and how disparate their lives could be.

When Ferrera decided to leave the show by the end of the fifth season, it wasn’t a total surprise Amy broke Jonah’s heart and left him behind to take her dream job, alone. “Superstore” did eventually bring Amy back for the series finale to give her and Jonah another chance, but from at least this fan’s perspective, it would’ve been just as happy an ending if she and Jonah had reconciled as dear friends who wanted the best for each other, even if that was with other people. Plus, “Superstore” had other great and unexpected couples reaching their own version of satisfying conclusions, including Mateo (Nico Santos) and Amy’s brother Eric (George Salazar) deciding to plan for their future, despite Mateo’s undocumented status endangering it. Then there’s forthright Dina (Lauren Ash) and determinedly chill Garrett (Colton Dunn), whose sporadic hookups became something more — and more interesting — over the years. There’s even scene-stealer Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) and her husband Jerry (Chris Grace), who were such perfect bookends for each other that it was impossible to imagine them being with anyone else. “Superstore” had a compelling couple in Amy and Jonah, but it didn’t need them to stay together in order for the show to do the same.

The adaptability of “Superstore” became its greatest asset after Ferrera left and, in a truly devastating and unexpected twist of real life, a pandemic shut down just about the entire world. Many shows did their best to incorporate COVID-19 into their stories, but few were equipped to deal with it in the way that “Superstore” was. For one, it was a show about people who had to go back to work and deal with the crisis head-on, and it took pains to make its depiction of that situation realistic. (Few other shows had the patience or inclination to keep its characters wearing masks, but “Superstore,” thankfully, did.) Even the show’s set — which remained largely untouched over the years —transformed to fit pandemic restrictions, with employees disinfecting their cashier stations and Garrett providing customer service from behind an imposing Plexiglass divider.

But the series’ smartest, and saddest, evolution through the pandemic came at its very end. Having muscled their way through a terrible year — because what other choice did they have? — the employees of Cloud 9 learned that their parent company had decided to shut down 95% of their physical stores to support online shopping, with only a few remaining to become “fulfillment centers.” They could, and did, try to become the “perfect store” to prove their case, but there was nothing they could do. Their shared time at Cloud 9, in all its wild glory, was suddenly and definitively over.

There’s an obvious and clever parallel between Cloud 9 getting the premature boot right as “Superstore” got the same. But this “twist” is also extremely, depressingly true to the real world the show reflected so well, with swift and merciless corporate decisions affecting people in ways the company implicitly disregards. That Cloud 9 and “Superstore” would both come to an end during this pandemic, which has seen so many businesses fold for good, makes for an undeniably apt ending to a show that never shied away from the harsh realities of corporate America.

In fact, the most unrealistic aspect of the “Superstore” finale is its idyllic flash-forward to better days. Amy and Jonah get married; Mateo and Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura) work for Glenn at his revived family hardware store; Dina runs the new fulfillment center; all the Cloud 9 employees stays in touch to the point that they can have a happy backyard barbecue together. It’s so perfect that it almost feels like a straight up fantasy, right down to the noticeably softer lens that films it.

For all the ways in which “Superstore” rang incredibly, uncomfortably true in its depiction of how relentless the corporate grind can be, though, this last joyful sequence gives its characters a hard-won reprieve. Sure, in real life, Amy and Jonah are more likely to get divorced, Glenn’s store would probably go under (again), and Dina’s fulfillment center could end up racked with labor violations. And yet for its final minutes, “Superstore” chooses to indulge an aggressively happy ending. Given the show’s history of letting its underdogs hit all too real walls, letting them ride off into a glossy sunset is a specifically contrarian choice — but it’s hard to begrudge. For six years, “Superstore” put in the work. Now, it gets to sit back, relax, and go out on a high note that doesn’t have to be logical to be great.

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