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‘Superstore’ Is a Funny, Pointed and Essential Workplace Comedy

The fall array of new shows arrives soon, but before that deluge hits, I highly recommend using a few hours of free time to catch up with the first season of “Superstore,” which is on Hulu and NBC.com. It’s a sharp yet warm workplace comedy, and it manages to be both nimble and incisive about an array of issues a lot of comedies artfully avoid.

Like many of the finer half-hours on TV, it’s not afraid to be political, but it’s the opposite of didactic; it’s amusing and artfully absurd while taking on topics that actually matter in many people’s day-to-day lives. Income inequality and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots is a contentious issue that has driven more than one politician to national prominence, and it shows no sign of going away any time soon, but TV has been wary of taking it on. Not so with “Superstore.”

There are a few programs that intelligently depict what it’s like to struggle to make it financially; shows ranging from “Jane the Virgin” to “The Middle” to “Broad City” depict characters who sometimes have a tough time paying their bills. But economic insecurity is not the primary focus of those shows, and over time TV has become more and more “aspirational,” which means it’s usually more comfortable showing characters who live in nice houses, have reliable cars and long conversations about the expensive colleges they attended or the quality of the organic produce they just bought. 

One of the excellent things about “Superstore” is that it’s not just about what it’s like to be on the shakier rungs of the socio-economic ladder. A typical episode will touch on matters of race, class and gender but also on romantic crushes, career ambitions and stupid shopping-cart tricks. It’s reliably funny and has a razor-sharp ensemble that only got better over the course of the show’s 11-episode first season, but percolating themes revolving around the dismantling of the American dream give this sitcom an extra boost of energy. “Superstore” isn’t an angry show by any means, but it takes on the kind of corporate indifference that was often lampooned on “The Office” and demonstrates that employee dissatisfaction and solidarity  often can be even more potent comedy engines when they exist a few rungs down from the white-collar level.

The crew that works at the fictional Cloud 9 superstore is one of those lovable ad-hoc TV families, and what often holds the clan together is their collective suspicion that the company that employs them is entirely indifferent to their fates. Nonsensical rules and inconvenient commands often come down from corporate, and though these directives may not have been specifically formulated to drive employees up a wall, the obliviousness of the unseen Cloud 9 overlords is an ever-present menace that unites the otherwise disparate crew, which includes a earnest devout Christian, ambitious associates from of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as a charmingly ditzy teen mother. 

Justin Spitzer, the executive producer and showrunner of “Superstore,” worked on “The Office” for many years, and many of its rhythms recall both that show and “Parks and Recreation.” America Ferrera’s character, Amy, often functions like Jim Halpert did on “The Office”; she’s a fundamentally decent person who often feels trapped by her circumstances, but is looking to improve her lot if she can.

There isn’t a direct Jim-Pam analogue on “Superstore,” but there is a bit of a will-they-won’t-they vibe between Amy and new employee Jonah (Ben Feldman), which is complicated by the fact that Amy is married and has a child. Both actors are terrific in their roles, and Feldman does a fine job of portraying a somewhat condescending college-educated character whose heart is nevertheless in the right place.

There are no weak links in the rest of the ensemble, whose standouts include Lauren Ash as Dina, as a hard-charging assistant manager, Colton Dunn as the laconic and witty Garrett and Nico Santos as the enthusiastic Mateo. The entire cast typically meshes well with the show’s guest stars, which in tonight’s Olympics-themed episode (airing after the conclusion of the games at 10:30 p.m. ET), include athletes like Apolo Anton Ohno, Tara Lipinski and McKayla Maroney, as well as “Saturday Night Live’s” Cecily Strong.

Those who have already enjoyed the show’s first season should be aware that there’s a bit of fiddling regarding the time frame of this episode. Spitzer said at the recent TCA press tour that it takes place some time before the season one finale, which featured the staff’s attempts to unionize. Given that he didn’t know if the show would be renewed, “I would have been kicking myself for the rest of my life that we hadn’t done our union episode” in the first season, Spitzer said.

Other topics “Superstore” will take on this coming season include the morning-after pill, open carry laws, and an employee who is undocumented, in addition to a Halloween episode and the kinds of holiday-themed installments that are more typical of a mainstream sitcom. Spitzer also noted that he has no plans to drop the union storyline. When the show returns to begin its second season in earnest on Sept. 22, “We pick up right where we left off in almost real time from the walkout at the finale,” he said.

It’s an exciting time for half-hour comedies, which, as I’ve noted, are generally more nimble and risk-taking than a lot of dramas at the moment. It’s especially gratifying to see that the broadcast networks aren’t afraid of letting half-hour shows like “Black-ish,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and the upcoming ABC comedy “Speechless” take on the kinds of social and political topics that would make Norman Lear proud.

As Ferrara, one of the show’s producers, said during the show’s TCA panel, “we have this incredible cast that represents so many different kinds of people, and so we don’t have to necessarily take sides to be having a conversation. And because Justin is such a smart writer, he and his writing team can handle those issues in a way that feels not like we’re on a soapbox or preaching, as much as we are all characters that represent different experiences of life and different points of view.”

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