In a time where many of us have been siloed at home, cut off from the trivial and often annoying interactions of the workplace, there was a strange comfort in watching a comedically heightened version of these spaces and the characters that populate them. Here is work without the labour, these shows seem to say. It is a space that, while often boring, ultimately enriches our lives through social interaction – making all those hours spent behind the desk eminently worth it.
That’s all well and good for a dose of escapism, but for most of us it doesn’t ring true. We know that work is labour – emotional, mental and physical – and that it is a necessity we are chained to in order to make money. Life tells us that work is a slog; it is a means to the weekend.
This is where Superstore, the final season of which is currently airing in the UK, comes in. This show, created by US Office co-writer Justin Spitzer, at first glance – and throughout the majority of its first season, aired in 2015 – seems to be your typical workplace sitcom, albeit with a more diverse cast than usually seen in similar series. In an enormous supermarket in St Louis, Missouri, part of the fictional Cloud 9 chain, we follow the fortunes of its staff, including the will-they-won’t-they romance of floor supervisor Amy (America Ferrera) and business school dropout Jonah (Ben Feldman); bumbling manager Glenn (Mark McKinney); teen mum Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura); and undocumented worker Mateo (Nico Santos).
It is precisely because of these tried and tested sitcom tropes – Jonah and Amy’s constant flirtation, Glenn’s slapstick manoeuvres with no-nonsense assistant manager Dina (Lauren Ash), Mateo and Cheyenne scheming to get out of work duties – that the characters soon earn our trust and empathy. When the real world begins to intrude, then, it holds even more weight.
Towards the end of the first season, Cheyenne goes into labour in the store and a comedy of errors ensues as the cast try to get her to hospital in time. It is a familiar sitcom scene, yet what sets Superstore’s version apart is the fact that the show swiftly informs us that Cheyenne is not eligible for maternity leave, and when boss Glenn manages to get her six weeks off on a “suspension”, he is immediately fired. Similarly, when Amy gives birth in a later season, she is back to work the following day, fulfilling the demands of Cloud 9 corporate.
Indeed, as the show’s seasons progress, “corporate” begins to increasingly encroach on what initially appeared to be a saccharine, low-stakes depiction of an American workplace. When a colleague needs medical help and Jonah tries to create an employee-led fund to cover conditions not included in Cloud 9’s pitiful insurance, it soon spirals into a pyramid scheme. While their regional managers range from the incompetent to the outright nepotistic, they all demonstrate to the viewer that behind all the fun and games at work, ultimately everything is about power and profit.
When Covid hits in the show’s sixth and final season, it is dealt with in a typically funny yet poignant manner. The staff are woefully unprepared, given no PPE and instead labelled “heroes” by corporate, all while they are forced to deal with unruly customers stockpiling toilet roll and eschewing masks. When Black Lives Matter protests come to the fore, Glenn’s response is chaotically endearing – throwing a pizza party for the workers of colour – but also highlights the work that even the most well-meaning white allies still need to do.
The show’s themes transcend borders and cultures to become increasingly pervasive and human. One continuing storyline is that of the staff’s unionisation efforts – a bid initially begun, again, by Jonah but hampered first by Amy’s ascension into management and then by a genuinely shocking episode that sees corporate send Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for an immigration raid on the store, detaining Mateo. The personal is constantly pitted against the demands of the collective, and it seems that whatever keeps corporate happy wins.
What keeps us watching this neverending David and Goliath battle between a huge company and its working-class employees? It is the fact that although their situations may not alter, the characters always manage to find comfort in each other – in their own capacity for lightness – and together they do enact granular, effective change. After Mateo is detained, they visit him and they protest; they walk out when Glenn is fired and get him rehired; they pitch in for a colleague’s individual medical care. The human spirit multiplied is greater than any corporate greed, the show tells us. It’s enough to make us all join a union.
As it comes to an end, Superstore shows us that we can witness the truth about work on screen, without it seeming either sentimental or a traumatic ordeal, by highlighting the authentic hope and goodwill of the people we work with. It is through them that work is made bearable – the load is lightened, if only through a moment’s laughter.