Superstore’s “Labor” Is Not Your Very Special Episode

Superstore’s “Labor” Is Not Your Very Special Episode


Even when it first aired in 2015, Superstore was a relic, the workplace sitcom a dying breed as streaming unleashed TV comedies from the medium’s tight constraints. Of course, there were still good workplace sitcoms. The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation were not far in the rearview. Superstore’s contemporary Brooklyn Nine-Nine ran for eight seasons, although it changed networks in the process. But even as a connoisseur of 2010s NBC sitcoms, I think it’s fair to say the format is tired. In a time of peak TV (one we are slowly slipping out of), even a good version of an established formula is uninteresting compared to Atlanta’s surrealism or Fleabag’s fourth wall breaks. In a media ecosystem with seemingly infinite content, is there anything we can still learn from the workplace sitcom? 

There may not be much excitement in the sitcom format itself, but there is an importance to the overlooked substance of the workplace sitcom: work. Whether it’s the COVID-19 pandemic reliance on precarious “essential workers”, the recent surge of unions in the service industry, or the new normal of working from home, Americans are thinking about work. Even within the entertainment industry, the recent WGA strike has drawn attention to labor issues. Superstore may not be the tightest sitcom, but it is savvy about work and uses the workplace sitcom format as a palatable vehicle for demonstrating the farce of working for minimum wage.

Admittedly, when I first saw ads for Superstore in 2015, I dismissed it. The show’s cheap, sterile sets and forced cheeriness made it look like a cash grab; in the aging industry that is network television, it doesn’t hurt to have a show built around seemingly unending opportunities for product placement. When I finally watched the show in 2022, I learned I had gotten it all wrong. I finally had a real job and wanted to participate in the age-old American tradition of coming home from your shitty job to laugh at other people doing their shitty jobs. Given my minimal expectations, I was surprised by Superstore’s rather ambitious political aims. 

Even the concept of Superstore is somewhat novel: it’s not set in an office. No one sits at a desk. Rather than follow paper pushers, Superstore is about retail workers. The setting is a fictional big-box store called Cloud 9 in St. Louis. The space is huge, and the work is specific and physical; Superstore makes use of this opportunity. Rather than using the talking heads format that has become synonymous with workplace sitcoms, each episode of Superstore features interstitials from around the store: a kid sitting on a squatty potty in the middle of an aisle, a man washing his clothes in a model washing machine, a customer leaving a pint of ice cream in the electronics sections, and always to the sound of the most generic store music. I hesitate to say the store is a character in the show because I don’t think it is. It’s actually massive and lifeless, but that’s what makes these off-color scenes that much funnier. The store is a blank canvas, and customers can (and do) bring literally whatever they want to it. 

Superstore doesn’t follow customers though. The show follows Cloud 9’s eccentric (and surprisingly well-drawn) employees. The show stars America Ferrera as Amy, the store’s reluctant floor manager, though that is probably the least interesting thing about her. Amy is a thirty-something trapped in a dead-end job and a loveless marriage after a teen pregnancy derailed her career plans and chained her to her high school sweetheart (who seemingly hasn’t matured since then). As a symbol of her remove, Amy wears a different name tag every day to withhold her identity from customers and maintain a little dignity. Amy has the opposite of the fervor common for workplace sitcom protagonists. Parks and Recreation’s “Leslie’s House” and The Office’s “Dinner Party” highlight just how empty their protagonists’ lives are outside of work: Leslie’s house is unlivable because filled to the brim with old newspapers and other junk while Michael’s house is dominated by the presence of his overbearing girlfriend Jan. These characters’ defining characteristic is they live to work, while Amy works to live. She has a family which seems to be a no-no for workplace comedies, and her kids, (ex-)husband, parents, and brother are all recurring characters on the show. Amy has a real backstory and life outside of work that gives her actions a sense of stakes. Her character has a depth that is rare in sitcoms; Amy isn’t a caricature but a real person who exists outside of the confines of the store. 

If Amy feels grounded, then her love interest Jonah (Ben Feldman) is anything but. In the pilot, Jonah applies to work at Cloud 9 despite having no retail experience, and we come to learn that he ran away to St. Louis after dropping out of business school. He has family money (though he is too proud to use it), listens to NPR podcasts during his breaks, and is very bad at his job. Unlike his coworkers, Jonah views the job as an excursion from his formerly privileged life that he can always go back to. His naive idealism makes him the perfect foil for Amy’s earned cynicism. The two’s chemistry lies at the heart of the show (and it is surprisingly palpable), but they are just part of a very large ensemble like that of The Office. There is bumbling store manager Glenn (Mark McKinney), tyrannical assistant manager Dina (Lauren Ash), and sardonic intercom announcer Garrett (Colton Dunn). There are actually more named characters than I can count, which creates the sense that this is an actual workplace and not just a Ferrera star vehicle. 

Despite Superstore’s interesting premise, season one is rather aimless, and only in the season finale does the show’s thesis begin to reveal itself in an episode aptly titled “Labor.” Teenaged Cheyenne (Nicole Sakura) keels over. She is going into labor, but even an emergency cannot curb the store’s dysfunction: the new guy, Mateo (Nico Santos), is asked to get towels but gets sidetracked picking out the prettiest one, Jonah keeps repeating the term Braxton Hicks contraction so everyone knows he knows it, Glenn volunteers to deliver the baby since he “played an abortion doctor in a hellhouse once,” and mousy Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) whispers that she is a trained midwife but no one hears her. To make matters worse, Garrett, in an attempt to get a video for Cheyenne’s ridiculous boyfriend, ends up displaying Cheyenne’s vagina on the store’s TV displays for all to see. Just another day at the office. The commotion grows and grows, but suddenly, Cheyenne stops screaming. It was a false alarm: “I guess I should put on my pants now.” Outrageous delivery sequences are nothing new to television, and the opening scene of “Labor,” if quippy, is nothing special. But it was a false alarm. Rather than recreate a scene that’s been done a thousand times (although it does this too), Superstore aims to rework the frantic birth cliche: why is Cheyenne even at work in the first place? 

After her false labor, Cheyenne continues going to work since Cloud 9 offers no paid maternity leave. Jonah (who is both idealistic and self-important) asks Amy to call corporate and insist that Cheyenne get paid maternity leave. Predictably, the two are immediately shut down, but things go awry as Jonah off-handedly mentions unions. “I’m transferring you,” the operator says abruptly, and they are transferred to the vice president of employee relations who tells them to “step back from the ledge.” Trying to assuage his fears, Amy tells him that no one is thinking about unionizing or going on strike (another scary word!), and they are placed on a seemingly endless phone tree of people with official-sounding titles: “We need to figure out this whole union problem at Store 1217.” Within one scene, Superstore addresses inequities in reproductive health and the decline of unions? The scene echoes the awkward phone calls Michael makes in The Office, but rather than narrowly critiquing corporate bureaucracy, Superstore targets the greater American political system’s refusal to protect mothers and hold the greed of corporations at bay.

The Cloud 9 higher-ups decide to send in a union buster or “labor relations consultant,” as he describes himself. (The union buster is of course a pasty white guy named Steve.) His presentation is about as contrived as you would guess, and a role-playing scenario proves to be a huge failure when Glenn freezes like a deer in headlights, and his replacement Dina is so aggressive that Steve actually agrees to sign the imaginary union card just to get her to stop threatening him. When Jonah starts asking too many questions, Steve reminds people of the donut holes he brought, and everyone goes back to work. Again, the scene may invoke something like the uncomfortable presentation in The Office’s “Diversity Day,” but rather than dwelling on the incompetence of the boss or fellow employees, in “Labor,” the joke is clearly on the much larger system that makes such overt union-busting tactics legal.

Frustrated by the lack of receptiveness from corporate, Jonah tells Amy he wants to get people to sign union cards. The two go back and forth, with Jonah accusing Amy of giving up, and Amy alleging that Jonah doesn’t know how the real world works. “I’m sorry I’m not the kind of person who just sits by doing nothing while people around me need help,” Jonah says. Meanwhile, the whole time they have been fighting, Cheyenne has been in the background giving birth. Amy and Jonah are constantly in competition with one another, and while their pettiness seems to be underlined by their intense sexual desire, their tiffs are not meaningless, and as the seasons progress, they often take on a political dimension. In “Guns, Pills, and Birds,” Amy and Jonah’s bickering has the backdrop of gun rights, when Jonah, upset Amy will not give him special treatment and take him off the gun counter due to his political objections, refuses to sell anyone guns. (The episode culminates in an armed protest which Amy has to help resolve.) The argument is both political and a way for them to express their sexual frustration.

“I might be 10 minutes late tomorrow,” Cheyenne says on a stretcher, about to be carted away with her newborn. “They said I will probably be done bleeding by then.” She is about to leave when Glenn says, “That’s it, Cheyenne. You distracted us, left your insides all over the floor, and now you brought your child to work. I am suspending you.” Everyone looks at him dumbfounded. “For four weeks. With pay.” Cheyenne sees what he’s doing, and the tension is relieved. In an uncharacteristic move, Glenn saved the day. Crisis averted, and Cheyenne leaves with Harmonica. (That’s the name of her baby.)

Cheyenne getting nothing and having to go to work the next day would be a pretty depressing ending especially given the resolution promised by a sitcom, but the above ending seems to resolve the conflict too easily. Glenn helped Cheyenne, but the primary issue of paid maternity leave is not addressed. Luckily, the episode doesn’t end here. When Amy approaches Glenn to thank him for helping Cheyenne, he reveals he was fired by union buster Steve for circumventing company protocol. In a rather heartfelt (and forced) speech, Glenn tells Amy that she needs to replace him, and eventually, she agrees. Her first move as manager is to stage the slow-motion walkout Jonah has clearly been waiting for. Everyone joins Glenn in the parking lot, and Amy says they won’t go back to work until he gets his job back. Just as it seems like the episode is going to end (for real this time), the slightly confused but excited crowd is interrupted. They have all been fired. 

Now I’ll be the first to admit that this is not one of Superstore’s funnier episodes. Some jokes don’t land, and the cast doesn’t seem to have gelled yet. It moves too quickly for any real discomfort to sink in. Even the ending, while dramatic, will have to be resolved quickly for the series to continue. However, the contents of the episode give a sense of gravity to the series. The season two premiere is appropriately named “Strike” and as you might imagine, that strike is short-lived. The episode ends with everyone getting their jobs back. However, it also ends with Jonah and Amy committing to keep the fight going: “This was just the first punch.” I assumed the union drive would either be immediately (and hilariously) squashed or quickly be successful. Neither is the case. By pushing past the most convenient ending, Superstore diverges from its predecessors, and what could have been a “very special episode” becomes the linchpin of the entire series. The show rejects rigid sitcom logic in favor of a more serialized and challenging story. 

Superstore was always concerned with politics and while there are one-off political episodes like the aforementioned “Guns, Pills, and Birds”, there are entire arcs dedicated to workplace organizing. Season three follows Amy and the team as they try to unmask Cloud 9’s ageist practices that lead to one of their coworkers being fired. They organize a company-wide town hall to expose Cloud 9 just for them to be betrayed by Jeff (another pasty white guy) from corporate who is offered a huge promotion for his silence. In season four, the union drive gets a little too close, and the union plot is combined with an immigration plot. In “Olympics,” which reached a large audience given it aired after the 2016 Olympics telecast, Mateo learns he’s undocumented. (Turns out there is no green card store.) This plotline leads to folly like Mateo trying to steal an “I Voted Sticker” but becomes very serious when Cloud 9 gets him detained by ICE to try and crush the union. This episode is a lot more jarring than “Labor,” although it makes sense to treat the issue with gravity. Organizing is not easy and in a profession as precarious as retail, people are bound to get hurt. Eventually, Mateo is released because his detention was an illegal union-busting tactic, but season four charts his discomfort with having to wear an ankle monitor (which is dealt with both humor and seriousness). Tackling this issue largely with comedy pushes back against the idea that anything political needs to be a drama. Even as some bemoan the encroachment of “woke” politics on comedy, Superstore uses comedy as a tool to navigate political topics and strikes a balance between consoling viewers and furthering discomfort around charged subjects. 

All these storylines may feel didactic or far away, but they are actually quite anchored to the show’s characters. Amy and Jonah go on to have a juicy will-they-won’t-they that lasts seasons, but instead of just serving as a steamy (if compulsory) plot device, the tension between them is just as much ideological as it is sexual. It’s no coincidence that the union drive begins in earnest after the two consummate their relationship at the end of Season 3. In a bittersweet scene right before they get together, Jonah teaches Amy to play golf, so that she can schmooze with corporate bigwigs. The show is all too aware of the racial and class barriers that divide Amy and Jonah, unlike the very similar pairing of Jake and Amy in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Jake and Jonah are proud Jewish guys. The Amys are both no-nonsense Latinas (and literally share the same name). However, Jake and Amy’s relationship is relatively surface-level. Jake and Amy largely chart the same career path, but Jonah and Amy diverge in ways that are politically poignant.

Amy is the natural leader, given her experiences and relationships, but after all the time she’s given to Cloud 9, she is committed to climbing the corporate ladder and eventually does get a corporate job. Jonah fights the good fight (which Amy is sympathetic to but often cannot be overtly involved in) and may appear to have the moral high ground, but he’s only able to take these risks because he has something to fall back on. He has no trouble living off her corporate salary. As hard as it is to seemingly watch Amy make deals with the devil, she is the mother of two kids, and there is the argument to be made that she is finally getting what she deserves. Up until the last episode, Jonah and Amy are negotiating what it would look like for them to have a life together, just as employees continue to negotiate what they want the store to look like. There is a push and pull, and there is no clear right answer. While this might seem like wishy-washy centrist propaganda (and it might be), perhaps it is more nuanced than that. In Superstore, the personal is political, and Jonah and Amy become both the emotional and political center of the show. Their relationship and continued organizing effort illuminates Superstore’s theory of change that extends beyond any of the particular topics it touches. Things are not hopeless, but nothing changes in a day. Social change is not achieved in one broad stroke (or one “very special episode”) but is part of the fabric of each day. 

I’m hesitant to say that Superstore represents the future of the sitcom because I’m not sure how much the sitcom has a future in the first place. But regardless of its future, sitcoms have a history of reaching across political silos. The packaging of the sitcom is unassuming, but since the 1970s, shows like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show have experimented with the sitcom as a political vehicle. These shows depicted real debates about racial and sexual politics and still reached large audiences by charming viewers with endearing characters and a humorous tone. We no longer all share the same three major TV channels (channels?), but I still think the sitcom has promise. The inoffensive facade of the sitcom has for generations brought people together through laughter and provided Americans with a shared language, one that is needed now more than ever. It won’t be as edgy or sophisticated as anything streaming can provide, but after finishing a sitcom, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of loss that I’m not when I’m watching other TV comedies. Getting to watch the characters day in and day out makes you care about them, and this in and of itself can be politically powerful. Superstore may belong to a genre that is slowly slipping away from us, but perhaps it deserves the label of workplace comedy even more than many of its predecessors because it takes a stance on work itself. As the sitcom slowly dies, I will grieve it because it won’t just be the death of an artistic medium but a political promise.

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