Arguably the most convincing fib that corporations sell their employees is that the workplace is a family in which everyone will look out for each other no matter what. This is by and large a comforting fiction designed to encourage workers to toil harder, and without complaint, at the behest of a machine continually trying to squeeze more efficiency out of its increasingly over-worked cogs.
The notion might be harder to sell if it weren’t for the frequent outcome of spending 40-plus hours a week with the same group of people, no matter how oddly matched: Through proximity, ambient chatter or sheer osmosis, you absorb the particulars of their lives — children’s names, weird little hobbies, minutiae and major milestones. Beyond the artifice of the “work family” and its call for rah-rah corporate loyalty, real bonds begin to form. You inevitably become, if not family, at least family adjacent.
NBC’s “Superstore,” created by “The Office” alum Justin Spitzer, has been ruthless in skewering big-business machinations over its six seasons, laying plainly the inequities in the American workplace and all the structures and ideologies reflected through it — healthcare, immigration, maternity leave, t-shirt feminism — while still extracting belly laughs. “Work is all I’ve ever known,” laments Cloud 9 co-manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) in the series finale, as he tries to figure out what he would do in retirement. “I started at my dad’s hardware store when I was eight, and before that I worked at the tollbooth…” he recalls, before Jonah (Ben Feldman) quickly assures him that he’ll find something else to do.
But in saying goodbye to the show’s lovable, misfit group of big-box workers, the series ultimately leans into the depth of the relationships they formed with each other — and with viewers since 2015 — in spite of, and sometimes in unison against, the oppressive greed of its corporate overlords.
After tech giant Zephra decides to shutter 95% of its Cloud 9 locations amid the pandemic, America Ferrera’s Amy returns from her cushy executive gig in California for the finale to try to help her work friends at St. Louis store #1217 survive the cuts. “You can’t close this store,” Amy tells a Zephra analyst, explaining that she has spent half her life working at the retailer. “I don’t have a good reason why. These people are my family.”
“With this group of people, it was clear that as much as they were sniping at each other sometimes or had their conflicts, there was a certain amount of bonding that they had done just from being in the trenches together,” “Superstore” co-showrunner Jonathan Green tells Variety. “When they were up against corporate and uniting to fight the man, that brought them closer together too, so the viewers have come to see this group as sort of a tight-knit family.”
This past season served as a bonding moment for its real-life cast as well, as they filmed episodes through the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and found an additional layer of significance to the now-essential workers they play onscreen.
Having to work through the pandemic “lended an energy to what would ultimately become the final season, helped frame our entire viewpoint and our entire mission statement from the beginning,” says Feldman, who stars as Jonah. “Because COVID obviously has been a massive magnifying glass for anything that’s difficult for anyone. And so the difficulties of these particular workers and working-class workers and frontline workers — it really illuminated those particular issues.”
Feldman and Lauren Ash (who plays co-manager Dina) tried on a “zillion” masks for the heads of all departments, he says, to see how each looked and sounded on camera. And the group was “very, very diligent” about deciding which scenes would realistically call for masks and which would not.
Co-showrunner Gabe Miller says the writers have always tried to place the show’s events in the realm of reality, and it would have been strange to pretend this past season that coronavirus didn’t exist. “We tried to figure out a way to talk about it… but also highlight what retail workers were facing with it,” he says. “That central contradiction of being called essential [workers] and heroes, but not getting the support from corporate, seems very much along the themes of our show. But it also seemed like you could get comedy out of that contrast too.”
For fans who have been watching since Season 1, a question mark has perennially hung on the fate of Amy and Jonah’s relationship. Ferrera departed the show after its 100th episode to pursue other projects, leaving Feldman’s Jonah to grapple with the aftermath of Amy not wanting to marry him. But with the pandemic initially halting TV production industrywide and NBC pulling the plug on the series, Amy’s return happened earlier than expected, culminating in her realization that she had made a mistake in pulling away from Jonah.
Longtime “Superstore” writers Green and Miller, who took over as co-showrunners of the Universal Television-produced series after creator Spitzer stepped down in 2019 to develop new series for the studio, say that their vision always involved Amy and Jonah ending up together, given how much time viewers had invested in the couple. But Ferrera, an executive producer on the series, remembers early-season conversations with Spitzer (who returned to co-write the series finale) in which the will-they-or-won’t-they could’ve easily went either way.
“Justin was never convinced that these two people belonged together or should be together,” Ferrera says, adding that Spitzer “never wanted the show to be contingent on one romantic couple,” since it was an ensemble comedy.
“I remember early on, with Justin, talking about how cool it might be if they didn’t end up together and if they just came into each other’s lives to propel each other towards the person that they were becoming,” she says, “and not necessarily that they had to be the end-all, be-all for each other and live happily ever after.”
Ultimately, Amy and Jonah choose each other, and Amy chooses her work family over her work. Once their store is earmarked to become a fulfillment center, she quits her job as a Zephra exec, a move meant to show that “these are still her people,” says Green. “She’s still part of our store family, and when they’re getting screwed over so badly by corporate… she was still on their side.”
Had “Superstore” been given the luxury of more time on air, Green and Miller were tossing around a number of other storylines that never had the chance to come to fruition. When the showrunners thought they were looking at the end of a season — instead of the end of the entire series — they envisioned Cloud 9 turning into a hybrid fulfillment center and retailer, with Dina running the half of the store dedicated to shipping online orders and Glenn running the half dedicated to in-store customers. Season 7 would have explored the idea of “a house divided.”
They also discussed the idea of Glenn, not yet ready for retirement, going to great lengths to find perfect post-Cloud 9 landing spots for all of his employees. Think: Glenn photoshopping animals into pictures of Elias to prove his pet-friendliness on a Petco application, or traveling to different Piercing Pagodas to make sure he found the right fit for Justine (and returning with several piercings himself). Instead, the early end to the series hastened the writers’ arrival at the full-on transformation of store #1217 into a fulfillment center.
But the abbreviated, final sixth season didn’t cut short its characters journeys.
Nichole Sakura, who plays the airy Cheyenne, was “so thrilled” when her character started climbing the professional ranks to become floor supervisor this season. “I’ve always wanted her to be a strong woman,” she says. “She started out as a 17-year-old pregnant teenager and it honestly feels like my own journey going through the seasons of the show — starting out as a younger cast member, and finding my place and finding my own strength, and really just sinking into that and feeling into it.”
With the finale’s news that corporate will retain but a handful of its workers, however, most of the gang has to move on to other things. Throughout the second half of the finale, no one is more pragmatic than Garrett (Colton Dunn) about resisting the rose-tinted nostalgia that comes with goodbyes.
“I don’t get it. We work in a big, dumb, ugly store and everyone’s acting like they’re Jordan walking off the court for the last time,” Garrett tells Cheyenne, when she asks him to take a picture of her mopping up her last slushy vomit.
He refuses to offer up his real email address for the group’s keep-in-touch contact list going around. Like many who decide to leave a job, he reasons that no one is actually going to hang out once they’re no longer mandated to be around each other. But in the end, nostalgia comes for us all, and despite years of frustrations and eye-rolling, Garrett can suddenly only remember the good stuff.
“Most jobs suck 99% of the time,” he says over the loudspeaker, in a tender last announcement. “You really gotta enjoy those moments that don’t: those bits of fun you had during downtime, or an interesting conversation with a coworker, or something happens that you laugh about later. Or you do something that you’re actually proud of. If you’re lucky, maybe you even get to be friends with a coworker or two along the way. Not sure what else you could want in a job.”
In an accompanying montage, viewers learn the fate of the Cloud 9 employees: Dina, Sandra, Marcus and Justine remain at the store, which has been transformed into a bright, spotless Zephra fulfillment hub. Mateo and Cheyenne land jobs at Glenn’s revived Sturgis & Sons hardware shop. Amy finds another executive gig, revealing through a misplaced PowerPoint slide that she and Jonah are happily married. Jonah runs for city council. The whole group gets together for a backyard barbecue.
The very last shot of the montage, of Amy and Jonah tucking their kids into bed as the camera pans up to a ceiling lit by glow-in-the-dark stars, is a callback to the pilot, in which Jonah creates a “moment of beauty” for Amy.
“We don’t use devices like that, really ever, in the show,” says Miller of the sentimental flash forward. “It’s [usually] a more observational approach, but I think we felt like in our finale, we had earned the ability to break the form a little, and we liked being a little hopeful. I think it was also because, with what we were doing with the store, we felt like that was enough of the feel of the cold reality, that we could offset that with some hope and idealism.”
For the finale, the cast and crew got together in Ferrera’s backyard for a socially distanced, COVID-tested watch party — some much-needed closure after they wrapped production in late February in anticlimactic fashion, without a wrap party or hugs, no thanks to the pandemic.
“It was such a joyful, awesome group of people that no one ever wanted to leave,” says Ferrera. In fact, departures were rare among the crew, many of whom stayed through all six seasons, she says, like hair department head Maria DiSarro. And Feldman made sure to point out that director Ruben Fleischer helmed both the pilot and the series finale.
“I think this show was about the family that you are sort of forced into, or the family that you kind of fell into and chose to stay,” says Feldman. “I think in my character’s case, it’s the family that happens to you. And that’s definitely what ‘Superstore’ was, and that’s what this cast is to me. We’re all extremely close. I’ve been on a bunch of shows, I’ve got a lot of friends on a lot of shows — I don’t know anybody who has been as successful in finding a really happy, consistently fun, cool family.”