‘Superstore’ EP Justin Spitzer on Jonah and Amy, Dina and Garrett, and … a Tornado?! (SPOILERS)

Warning: Plot details for May 4’s Season 2 finale of “Superstore” follow. Do not read unless you have seen Thursday night’s finale episode. 

NBC’s sophomore comedy “Superstore” finished its second season with a bang tonight — or more exactly, a cyclone. A tornado ripped through Cloud 9 — opening up a gaping hole in the roof of the store. As the employees ran for cover, tensions boiled over — including a long-awaited kiss between Jonah (Ben Feldman) and Amy (America Ferrera). The episode ends with Amy returning to her family to embrace them both, and Jonah staring after looking a bit forlorn.

Showrunner and executive producer Justin Spitzer, who worked on the “The Office” for several years, is no stranger to the second-season-finale kiss; that show’s star-crossed lovers Jim and Pam finally kissed seconds before end of “Casino Night.” “Superstore” has elements of that crescendo, but with a characteristically different and more realistic tone. Variety spoke to Spitzer about the climactic episode “Tornado,” the show’s rising profile in Season 2, and what might be next for the characters.

Sonia Saraiya: So. Why a tornado?

Justin Spitzer: [Laughs.] You know, it’s funny. We’ve been talking about it for a long time, and I’m trying to think if I can remember how it first started. We’ve had a joke or two early on in the season about tornado safety and we had started talking, maybe as far back as last season. We’ve never seen comedy do something like that, where a tornado actually hit the store. How would that be? You know, would it be one of those episodes where they think the tornado is going to hit and then it doesn’t hit — but that feels kind of like, lame, and a copout. What if the tornado actually did hit the store? Wouldn’t that be fun to do someday?

Then, early on in the season, we found out that our stages were going to be knocked down to make room for a ride in the theme park, and they were going to have to rebuild the store. [Laughs.] You know where the money is. They were going to have to rebuild the store on some different sound stages. And even though we could replicate it somewhat, inevitably things were going to look a little different. We realized: What a great way to motivate how it’s going to look different, and also take advantage of the fact that we can just destroy this thing and not have to worry about putting it back together, if we just work towards the tornado in this season. So, we just started — and very astute fans might have realized — every five or six episodes, we’d plant another little joke about how ill-prepared the store was for a tornado. If you really wanted to go back and analyze it, you could probably find four or five instances where we actually did it — and yeah, just beat the hell out of it.

Was it fun to break everything down, or was it a little sad?

Some people were sad, I don’t know. It didn’t feel like the end of something to me. It really just felt like we were moving and what a great, fun way to move. It’s like getting a chance to make a huge mess and not having to worry about cleaning up after yourself.

The second season of “The Office,” which you worked on, also ends with the will-they/won’t-they couple finally kissing. It’s a little less of a cliffhanger in this. Tell me a little bit about choosing this direction with Jonah and Amy.

Sure, yeah. Well first, I think it still is a will-they/won’t-they. I mean, in a moment where they thought they were going to die, where Jonah if not saves Amy’s life — or at least saves her from a pretty bad injury — she grabs him and kisses him. In that moment she has — whether you want to call it a moment of weakness or a moment of clarity — but then at the end of the show, she sees Adam and Emma and realizes what’s important, or what she thinks is important, and runs into their arms. So going forward, this is not Jonah and Amy are together.

And really, for most of the season I was against doing even the kiss at the end of the season. I felt like I wanted to keep slowly building the tension between them — keep having more sparks, more moments of jealousy, of sexual tension, until it felt like we absolutely had to get them together, like we had no choice.

I try not think about it too much, but I was aware in the back of my mind that, yeah, “The Office” had Jim and Pam kiss at the end of Season 2. I know that show pretty well, and I’d hate to follow that template too much. Really, we went back and forth — and for most of the planning and writing of this episode, they didn’t kiss. They were going have like, a moment, where they could’ve kissed and then didn’t. For a number of reasons that felt like it was too weaksauce. I wanted it to be — to feel important and meaningful when she ran back to Adam at the end, and for that to happen I thought she and Jonah had to have something real and something openly acknowledged — and not another instance of Jonah wondering, What does that look mean? Does it mean what I think it means? You know. [Laughs.]

I hope we haven’t taken away the tension between them. I think we haven’t because I really don’t feel like they are a couple now.

About doing it in a tornado — a tornado just felt like,  you know sometimes it’s great to get characters drunk, because they can act in way they wouldn’t otherwise — or they can act following their id, without thinking about it. I guess being drunk is the catalyst to make people act that way. Fearing for your life in a disaster seems like that too. It seems like if there’s moment where they can have a connection and have a kiss and not have it then define their relationship going forward, it would be when death was imminent.

Would they have kissed now, or anytime soon, if there hadn’t been a life-or-death scenario?

I think not. Absolutely not. I think it would have taken some other — I don’t think they’re at a place yet where they would kiss unless it was either completely drunk or fighting for their life. There’s a handful of other things that would do that. I think they want to kiss, but I don’t think they’re yet at the place where they would have, had this not happened.

The tornado brings about revelations for the other characters, too. Glenn (Mark McKinney) starts praying to Allah, which to his mind ends the tornado. That’s an interesting crisis of faith.

We shot a version where at the very last shot he says, “I don’t know if I believe in God anymore.” We may decide to play that. But I think no matter what, Glenn is a believer — whether it’s a Christian God or if it were the Islamic God — or if it were atheism — he is a believer in something. So he could never not believe in anything — or if he did, he wouldn’t know where to put his energy. I don’t think — we as a show are not trying to say that the true faith is Islam and Allah saves the store [laughs.] although there will probably be some blog out there that reads that into this.

He goes through his options, too, because there’s also “the Jewish God.”

The Jewish God, I think Buddha, Vishnu, I don’t know what aired exactly — we ran through the whole litany. if the end is near, you reach for any branch you can — you’re not too discerning over who’s holding the branch.

Another thing that has been interesting about this season is the evolution of Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi). She started out as a punchline — and then became a horrible pathological liar — and then by the end of the season is past that, too, towards becoming a happier and healthier person. Tell me a bit about creating a full character out of what started as, essentially, a gimmick.

I mean, so much of it is the actress. She brings kind of, layers to it beyond just the simple joke. So that’s part of it. It’s always fun having a sad sack who can kind of become less of a sad sack over time — so it’s like you have growth built into the character from the beginning. I don’t think just anyone can play it. I think with Kaliko, it feels like there’s a current  — this sounds so bulls–tty, but there’s like an undercurrent of strength beneath a lot of it, where I don’t find myself ever feeling bad for her. where … I don’t find myself ever feeling bad for her. It’s like — all the shit you throw at her, but you’re still with her for the ride. You keep respecting her too — she’s not just someone who people step on and you kind of lose respect for. With her too, I think her journey continues. I don’t think all of a sudden just because she tried to murder her coworker in the finale, she’s now going to be some strident bull in the store. [Laughs.]

One of the fun things about watching “Superstore” is watching members of the ensemble become bigger characters. Can you tell us who might be stepping into a weightier storyline next season?

[Laughs.] Did some of our day players ask you to ask that question?!

No, I promise!

You know, there’s two ways you you find a character on a show like this. You sometimes just have an idea for a character, and you do a big casting session and you find people. Otherwise you write a random line for someone, and you find there’s a whole character that that actor brings. So, with Sandra that was just one fun joke in an episode, and we kept going back to her. Marcus, Jon Barinholtz, is someone we more cast for that part — but everything we give him, he is just amazing with. He has ridiculously funny improv, so he’s definitely someone we want to continue seeing more of.

I think you’d probably look at the rest of our cast and people are starting to be familiar with some of the smaller roles — Myrtle (Linda Porter), Justine (Kelly Schumann), Carol (Irene White). But I do want to keep expanding the world, I think that’s the fun of a show like this. Even in “The Office, we couldn’t quite do that because that cast became ridiculously big; it was always a very closed space in that set. But you’ve got so many people working at a store like this, and people come and go and shift change. So there’s sort of infinite opportunities to introduce new characters.

Tell me a little about Dina (Lauren Ash) and Garrett (Colton Dunn)’s relationship. In this episode, Dina’s so callous about his survival that it had me wondering if she’s, I don’t know, a sociopath? Or maybe it was a ruse to get him riled up?

That’s interesting. It did occur to me even while I was watching it — would it read as if she just was messing with him? To me, Dina seems like she has very strict moral code that she lives by. She and Glenn are always at each other’s throats, but weirdly they are the two most moral characters of the ensemble. I think for her that makes things very easy — and I think that’s why she can come across a little brusque, because there’s not a lot of questioning what to do, what’s right in any situation. I think she’s a good friend and I think she’s loyal, butwhen the rest of the staff walked out at the end of Season 1, she recognized that for her, like — she’s employed by Cloud Nine and it’s her job to keep working at Cloud Nine, and she may love these people and she may not want to see them go, but she’s not going to walk out with them. It doesn’t even make sense for her why anyone would be mad at her, because they’re the ones that walked out on the contract, not her. I think she can be the heavy hand of authority, without being unlikable.

“Superstore” has become a politically engaged show — the strike, Mateo’s immigration status, voting day at Cloud 9. How has it been to embrace some of those issues, and is it something that you feel has worked out well for the show?

Yeah. It has become more central to the show’s identity. I think we’re aware that people are excited when we’re dealing with an issue. We are too — it’s fun to have something driving the episode a little, or at least an area that we can get jokes from. It’s always great when you’re writing something that feels a little bit dangerous, if you can. We generally don’t think: What is the issue? Let’s wrap a story around that. We try to just come up with episodes and stories for the characters and the milieu, and then when there’s an issue that naturally presents itself, we go towards it. We don’t shy away from it. So I think we’ll continue to do that. This is supposed to be a grounded, real-world show, and those issues would affect them, in a world like that.

But, I don’t think we’ll — I’m trying to think of some hot-button issue that would never, ever, ever, come into play. You know, I don’t know if they’re going to be debating the justification of the Iran deal, or anything like that. You know, they can have a joke about it, but we’re not going to do an episode about that [laughs]. I think of us as a socially relevant show, more than a politically relevant show, so I hope we can keep doing that.

One of the things that’s interesting about other workplace shows is that as the ensembles grow to like each other, shows can move from strife to a sunny, lighthearted thing that defines later seasons. Not to ding this approach, but I’m thinking specifically of “Parks and Recreation,” which became a very feel-good show. “Superstore” has been a rather dark show so far — and having a tornado destroy your store is also dark. How do you hold onto something gritty and realistic — while creating something that feels fun and funny and has that familial feeling?

Yeah, I think that’s interesting and true. I’ll be curious if we can keep this tone going over time. You can certainly get why that happens on shows — the characters become more likable, more relatable, and then it becomes difficult for them to act in any way that’s not just positive and for the good of each other. Already I see that sometimes — where we’ll talk about, should Dina do this kind of negative thing? and then it’s like, no, but Dina’s so sweet, she’s everyone’s friend, how could she do that? [Laughs.] And that’s probably why I was excited to not have her walk out at the end of Season 1 to maintain a little edge.

I think if we can hold on to it — and we’d like to — it’ll probably come from me feeling like people are selfish and people act in their own best interests and don’t always do the right thing — and can still be likable and real. I hope to be able to keep doing that, and to check ourselves any time it feels like we’re doing another episode where characters are going out of their way to help someone just because they’re good people. People are friends, people like each other. People are also dicks [laughs]. It’s just about keeping the characters three-dimensional. Writing them in a way that feels consistent, but not always identical to what they’ve done before, I guess.

To go back to Jonah and Amy, that tonal shift is also something that accompanies two characters finally getting together.

Yeah, it’s about tension, I think. When a couple gets together, you lose a lot of tension. Everybody is acting generously towards each other and out of love, and it takes away a lot of tension. And it’s weirdly, it’s more difficult to get stories when you don’t have tension. So it’s funny that it almost inevitably happens with shows. It happens because you want your characters to grow, and people tend to grow towards each other on shows. So the challenge will be letting our characters continue to grow, but in ways that aren’t always towards love or friendship or generosity.

I’m curious to see how you do it!

Oh god, me too! [Laughs.] Your guess is as good as mine. We’ll be checking in like, three years and being like, Why does Dina give everyone a flower every morning? It doesn’t make any sense. Just a big orgy of good feeling and community.

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