NBC’s Superstore is low-key one of network television’s best comedies, something that is often overlooked for a sitcom that airs on the same night as Big Bang Theory. Sort of The Office set in a big-box store, Superstore has evolved into a brilliant ensemble that, like The Office, features so many great characters that our favorites tend to rotate from week to week.
Also like The Office, Superstore has its fair share of wacky storylines and romantic subplots, but unlike The Office, it’s set in the retail environment where most of the employees work for minimum wage. While there is a lot of comedy that can be extracted from that, the series also confronts the realities of low-wage work from gender discrimination to workplace safety to sexual harassment to earning enough to make rent while raising a child conceived as a teenager as a single parent. Yet, while these low wage jobs suck, they also represent the only opportunities for many of these characters, who also have to contend with being replaced by automation and the fact that brick-and-mortar stores themselves are in their death throes.
This week’s two-part finale dealt with two other realities that face retail workers: Unions and ICE. It was a doozy. Last week Sandra, in order to avoid being fired, began promoting the idea of a union in the store because an employee can’t be fired for trying to unionize. What begins as a way to avoid losing her job, however, flowers into a real possibility in this Cloud 9 store. The rub is this: Amy, a pro-union floor worker recently promoted to manager, has to shut down the efforts to unionize in order to save the store from being turned into a distribution center by corporate.
That conflict puts Amy’s boyfriend, Jonah (the only floor worker who knows about the threat to shut down Cloud 9), into a hell of a predicament: Support the Union and risk his job (and that of his breadwinner girlfriend, Amy) or go against the Union to save his (and everybody else’s) shitty, low-paying, benefit-less jobs. It also creates professional tension in Amy and Jonah’s romantic relationship because Jonah is forced to choose between his principles (and the former principles of Amy) and his girlfriend’s $109,000 salary.
I should mention, too, that Superstore — as always — handles this issue with a light comedic touch, maintaining a sense of humor without downplaying the seriousness of the issues. That is, until corporate tries to break up the unionizing efforts by sending ICE to the store, which puts the job — and life — of Mateo (an undocumented Filipino worker) in danger.
Amy, as it turns out, is willing to break up the Union to protect her employees’ jobs, but ICE is a bridge too far. In an intense sequence at the end of the episode, she and Dina — using the store’s CCTV devices — attempt to navigate Mateo clear of ICE Agents Bourne-style until he’s completely surrounded. At this point Superstore screeches to an all-too-depressing reality: Mateo is bussed away by ICE agents, his future at Cloud 9 and in America left in doubt.
I have no idea how the writers are going to write themselves out of this corner, a gift from departing showrunner Justin Spitzer to incoming new showrunners Gabe Miller and Jonathan Green. But it’s yet another reflection of the reality we live in where being picked up and potentially deported can be the storyline to a Thursday night network sitcom (see also Freeform’s upcoming Party of Five reboot where the kids’ parents are not killed but deported). It’s scary times, and to Superstore’s infinite credit, it did not seek to find a joke in this reality. Instead, it sees a heartbroken Amy at the end of the episode saying f*ck it, turning to Jonah and asking, “Wanna start a union?”
Where this leaves the NBC sitcom ahead of season 5, I have no idea, but I trust that will be able to write itself out of this corner, somehow keep Nico Santos’ Mateo on the series while also continuing to be funny and acknowledging the reality of our times. It’s a hell of a balancing act for a half-hour comedy, but I trust that Superstore will be able to continue being one of television’s funniest and smartest sitcoms into season five and beyond.