‘Superstore’ Was the Perfect Comedy for Less-Than-Funny Times

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The first season of “Superstore” ended with a tried-and-true comic premise: An employee is going into labor! And she can’t make it to the hospital in time! We’re going to have to deliver the baby right here!

A call goes up over the loudspeaker at Cloud 9, the big-box store where the savings are “heavenly” and the customers look as if they’ve wandered off a George Romero set. Garrett (Colton Dunn), the customer service guy, starts to ask for a doctor but catches himself after a quick scan around the store: “Anybody here watch a lot of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’? Maybe ‘Nurse Jackie’? Not ‘The Knick.’”

As all the other employees huddle around Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura), the teen mom now huffing-and-puffing on an AstroTurf lawn display, each of them stay true to comic form, confidently harmonizing their quirks. Jonah (Ben Feldman), the store’s super-woke business-school dropout, speculates that she might be having “Braxton Hicks contractions,” a kind of false alarm, which prompts Amy (America Ferrera), the floor supervisor, to call him out for being a pretentious know-it-all. (They have a thing.)

Dina (Lauren Ash), a take-charge company woman in the Dwight Schrute mold, rolls up her sleeves. “I took part in a cow birth once,” she says. “The calf died. But I learned what not to do.” Glenn (Mark McKinney), the store’s anti-abortion Christian manager, offers that he “played the abortion doctor in a Hell House once.”

It’s a wonderfully manic half-hour of television, with laughs spread across the ensemble. But the name of the episode, “Labor,” suggests a double meaning. When the panic subsides — Jonah was right about the Braxton Hicks contractions, much to Amy’s annoyance — certain practical questions settle in: Why is Cheyenne working this late into her pregnancy? Why doesn’t the company offer maternity leave? Can she afford to take any days off?

“Superstore” ends its six-season run on Thursday as the punch-clock analog to another great NBC workplace comedy, “The Office,” of which the “Superstore” creator, Justin Spitzer, wrote many episodes. There are unmistakable echoes between the two, from the Jim and Pam-style will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry between Amy and Jonah to staff meetings that regularly descend into chaotic forums for dumb ideas or embarrassing personal squabbles.

And yet “Superstore,” with its more diverse and underpaid staff, kept bumping into issues more common to the American work force, specifically the vested legions of stockers and checkout clerks lining the aisles of Target, Walmart and other department-store beachheads. Unionization, immigration, racism, gun control, reproductive rights: The show wasn’t necessarily inclined to pick fights, but characters with low wages and few benefits are bound to have practical problems, and a store like Cloud 9 never insulated them from the outside world. It was an ecosystem, but not a bubble.

“It feels almost like a time capsule,” Feldman, who played Jonah across all six seasons, said in a phone interview earlier this month. “I feel like if we went back and watched ‘Superstore’ 20 or 30 years from now, or if my kids watched when they were older, it would be a helpful way of showing them what America was like at this specific time.”

So what was the America of “Superstore”? It’s a place where blue-collar workers cannot make a living wage and have to rely on ad-hoc solutions to problems that corporate can’t solve. When Cheyenne can’t get maternity leave, Glenn gives her a six-week paid suspension. (He is fired for that.) When deductibles become too high, Jonah tries to start a health care fund to pay for them but inadvertently creates a pyramid scheme.

When Garrett and other employees of color complain about the microaggressions they face every day, Glenn attempts to solve systemic racism by throwing them a pizza party as reparations. (“The break room is kind of a safe space for the historically marginalized,” Jonah says.)

Although “Superstore” was not long on Very Special Episodes, it did have the audacity to end its fourth season with an undocumented Filipino associate, Mateo (Nico Santos), getting carted away by immigration police. And this was no random dragnet: Corporate authorized a workplace enforcement as part of its strategy to crush a unionization effort. There is a melting-pot optimism to the Cloud 9 setting, where employees of varying ethnicities and personalities can resolve problems and find common cause. But this is America, too, the show implied, where corporate greed hammers its employees and hard-line immigration policies wind up infiltrating the local department store.

And yet Spitzer, who wrote Mateo’s detention as his final episode as showrunner — the hottest of potatoes to hand off to his successors, Gabe Miller and Jonathan Green — said that he never intended “Superstore” to be issue oriented.

“I never wanted to create a meanspirited show,” he said. “Even in times when we explored topics that were a little darker or more controversial, we always had a lot of support from the network because we never wanted it to be ugly. We never wanted to be hitting a message too hard.”

Spitzer said his message to his writers had been simply to remember that he “wanted all the characters to act out of self-interest.” That directive brought the issues to “Superstore,” not the other way around. A character like Amy might get excited about unionization when she’s still on the floor scanning bar codes. But when she starts making a six-figure salary in management, her convictions soften a bit. She can finally buy a house for her kids and not sweat about insurance premiums.

No comedy was better suited to live up to our pandemic moment, as “Superstore” did in its final season. From the early days of Covid-19, employees at stores like Cloud 9 have been hailed as essential frontline workers, quietly absorbing the invective (and spittle) of the unmasked while serving those with the luxury to shelter in place. Their bosses call them “the true heroes during this chaotic time,” but give them little guidance or personal protective equipment, which reduces one associate to fashioning a mask out of a coffee filter and the others to decapitate teddy bears and steal their neckerchiefs.

In a video call last week, Green said that it had helped that the show was established before the pandemic season. “If we had been starting the show right now during the pandemic, and trying to show what retail workers are going through at this time, I think it might have felt more heavy-handed or lecture-y,” he said.

And so “Superstore” ends with our friends in the trenches. It’s Garrett who’s behind a thin veil of plexiglass, taking returns from “the wet-lipped community.” It’s Dina who gives chase from a six-foot distance when a maskless customer runs after the last jar of pasta sauce. It’s Glenn who doesn’t want to be called a hero for pointing out where someone can find the bottled water.

There’s an esprit de corps to these characters that speaks to more than six seasons of consistently strong writing or the chemistry of its cast or even their fitful bids for collective bargaining. “Superstore” is a workplace sitcom that feels like society in miniature, a fractious pocket of humanity that comes together out of necessity and improvisation. Few of them would be friends outside work, but if they pull down the same shift long enough, they start to become family.

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