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NBC Comedy ‘Superstore’ Tackles Capitalism with Humor and Pathos

Superstore consistently depicts with humor and pathos how corporate America keeps working-class people in a perpetual state of precarity.

Superstore
Justin Spitzer
NBC
2015 - 2021 (US)

The understated workplace comedy Superstore, which premiered in 2015 and aired its final network episode on 25 March of this year, is one of NBC’s most delightful shows. While in its first season Superstore comes across as nothing more than basic escapism, over the course of six seasons, it evolves into an empathetic and nuanced portrait of working-class life in all its complexities. Set in a fictional Wal-Mart-like retail store named Cloud 9 in St. Louis, Missouri, Superstore consistently depicts with humor and pathos how corporate America and the larger structures of capitalism are designed to keep working-class people in a perpetual state of precarity.  

Some of its best storylines concern unions, maternity leave, healthcare, and inequality. For example, season four features two of its main characters being pregnant, assistant manager Dina (Lauren Ash) and floor worker Amy (America Ferrera), and giving birth on the same day. Episode five, “Delivery Day”, shows the stark contrast of their experiences. Because Dina is a manager, she’s under a different healthcare plan than Amy, which allows her to give birth in a posh hospital full of handsome doctors. Meanwhile, Amy is stuck sharing a room with an older woman’s corpse in a dilapidated public clinic. 

In the next episode, “Maternity Leave”, Amy, unlike Dina, is forced to return to work shortly after giving birth or she risks losing her job. She shows up wearing pajamas and sneakers and looking realistically disheveled and exhausted. When it’s time for Amy to breast pump, she looks to her manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) for help. He refuses to let her use his office and sends her to the utility room. We then see Amy pumping next to her fellow worker, the Muslim Sayid (Amir Korangy), who has nowhere else to go for his prayers. Equal parts brutal and funny, the episode captures the indifference and disdain corporations have for their floor workers.

Unlike other TV shows of the moment, Superstore addresses the coronavirus pandemic head-on. The first episode of the final season, “Essential”, features its workers scrambling to make gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer from kitchen products and stuffed animals to protect themselves because corporate (at this point Cloud 9 had been bought by a tech company named Zephra) neglects to ship them safety equipment. When a truck from corporate finally arrives the workers find not PPE equipment, but toilet paper and other “essentials”.

Seeing the staff’s disappointment Jonah (Ben Feldman) wryly points out, “Of course. You see what we did wrong there, guys? If we wanted to be protected by corporate, we should’ve been merchandise.” He then proceeds to acknowledge that “looting is overblown” (in the context of the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests that antagonizers turned into violence and looting in the US in summer 2020).

The same truck also contains signs to be displayed across the store that claim, “Zephra believes in the black community”, prompting the disaffected Garrett (Colton Dunn) to mockingly ask, “Zephra believes in the black community? What are we, ghosts?” This underscores the common empty gestures of corporations that more often than not benefit from keeping the status quo intact.

As Georgetown University professor Marcia Chatelain notes in an interview with The Guardian, corporations have a history of “grafting themselves onto a narrative of civil rights” without making systemic changes, such as increasing wages and offering comprehensive healthcare coverage. She says that ultimately, a corporation’s effort to present itself as an ally is more about sustaining its own power than about helping underrepresented communities.

In addition to its consistently sharp critique of corporate culture and capitalism, Superstore excels in its representation of people of color. Its multicultural ensemble cast is never reduced to a mere caricature of working-class life, but rather, each character has depth and a meaningful storyline. For example, one of the most poignant storylines is that of Mateo (Nico Santos), an undocumented Filipino worker who lives under the constant threat of deportation. 

Another highlight character is Amy, whose Honduran ethnicity is consciously mobilized to disrupt viewers’ expectations of Latina identity. Amy embodies what Latina/o Studies scholar Isabel Molina-Guzmán calls the “antiexotic Latina character” – a character that challenges “the dominant regime of representation” and serves to “create a type of cognitive dissonance for audiences as a result of their stereotypic assumptions about Latinas/os not cohering with the visual world of TV” (31, 83). In her own analysis of Superstore, Molina-Guzmán argues that Amy “stands out for what she is not” (107).

For example, in the third episode of the first season, “Shots and Salsa”, Amy is tasked with performing a stereotypical version of Mexican identity (affecting a heavy accent and wearing a large sombrero) in order to sell Cloud 9’s brand of salsa. Amy at first refuses and then gives in after she finds out the proceeds will go to charity.

It’s telling that customers only approach Amy after she starts speaking Spanish and affecting a heavy accent in English, with one white woman asking her, “Is it similar to what you would eat in your village?” The episode highlights that many Americans continue to have a myopic view of who Latinas/os can be (often assuming they are poor, rural immigrants, non-English speakers, and so on).

In another standout episode from the fifth season, “California, Part 1”, Amy, now a Cloud 9 store manager, is sitting in a lobby with other Brown women waiting to be interviewed for a corporate job at Zephra. One woman remarks, “Oh, look at that, all Latinas.” Amy asks, “This is weird, right?” Another woman chimes in, noting, “Hey, if it gets me a seat at the table, I’m not above rolling my Rs.” The first woman agrees, saying, “Yeah, sometimes you just gotta do the dance.”

This fascinating exchange underscores the performative nature of identity. Amy and the two women are conscious of the fact that they have to negotiate and perform their Latinidad in order to gain access to resources and opportunities that are typically scarce for Latinas and other minorities. 

Superstore ends on a fitting note, with the majority of Cloud 9 stores closing down to move their business online and floor workers being laid off. Despite Superstore’s focus on the cruelty of corporate America and the precarious situation of working-class people, it’s never a depressing show. It’s full of joy and warmth, reveling in the eccentricities of its characters as well as in their friendships and romantic relationships. Along the way, Superstore effectively uses humor to challenge gender, ethnic, and racial stereotypes, making it a refreshing and welcome addition to the workplace comedy genre.    

US viewers can binge episodes of Superstore on Hulu.


Works Cited

Garber, Megan. “The Joys of Basic Television”. The Atlantic. 5 January 2016.

Holpuch, Amanda. “Why Corporate America Makes an Unconvincing Ally Against Racism”. The Guardian. 27 June 2020.

Molina-Guzmán, Isabel. Latinas & Latinos on TV: Colorblind Comedy in the Post-Racial Network Era. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press. 2018.

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