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Dark corporate cynicism is a familiar default approach to depicting modern capitalism and the well-intentioned peons caught in its path.
Bright and cheery corporate cynicism is a more complicated thing, one worth treasuring when done right. I’d point to ABC’s Better Off Ted as a fine example of this subgenre, a creation so precarious that part of me is relieved it didn’t tempt fate for longer than 26 episodes.
NBC’s Superstore, which ended its run Thursday night (March 25), was perhaps even more tenuous: a show that did bright and cheery corporate cynicism but also aspired to a romantic’s heart and a Dick Wolf procedural’s currency. I’m not sure if it’s more remarkable that the series worked at all or that it somehow ran 113 episodes.
Maybe Superstore never could have ended on its own narrative terms and its own tonal terms at once. As a story, this chronicle of employees at a St. Louis-area big box store was always intended to accentuate the workplace-as-family ideal that has spawned so many successful sitcoms. It’s an ideal the show rarely let us forget ran counter to a capitalist culture that sees workers as the disposable infantry in an ongoing war with the bottom line.
Thursday’s finale was a good series finale. It offered grace notes for many supporting characters, tied things back to the show’s pilot and, most importantly for audience gratification, offered happy resolution for its main characters. The show’s creative team was able to write it as a series finale, which in no way means this was when the series finale was intended to come. As a resolution to a seventh or eighth season, maybe this finale would have felt organic instead of just final.
The timing of America Ferrera’s semi-abrupt departure from the show and NBC’s semi-abrupt decision to end the show stuck the writers with an unfortunate one-two punch. Not only did they have to sacrifice all of Amy’s common sense to force a breakup with Ben Feldman’s Jonah that didn’t fit at all with what the show had previously established; but the consequences of the breakup, the moving past the breakup and then the inevitable retraction of the breakup all had to take place in a truncated season of TV. The finale forced Amy to apologize for the writers’ mistakes more than her own. Might Ferrera and the producers have had an entirely different approach if they’d known how fast that reversal would be? I have to assume the answer is, “Yes.”
The finale had to be satisfied with just reminding us that Amy and Jonah were always sweet together in a situation with no dramatic stakes, since once Amy popped up in the antepenultimate episode, there was never any question that Amy and Jonah were going to end the series together. To my mind, the much stranger but maybe more appealing relationship between Garrett (Colton Dunn) and Dina (Lauren Ash) could have become the series’ centerpiece coupling, but nobody believed in it enough. A better sense of how those two broken souls completed each other would have made me happier than just pushing Amy and Jonah back together. The writers knew, though, that audiences needed the latter. And guess what? It worked! I was happy with Amy and Jonah kiss and I was happy that Garrett and Dina decided to continue their relationship.
That was what a lot of the finale was like — letting audiences take satisfaction in things that probably needed more justification, knowing that viewers are inclined to accept things in a finale.
Glenn’s (Mark McKinney) just going to open a hardware store now and that’s a happy ending because he’s also going to hire Matteo (Nico Santos)? If you think 2021, in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, is the right time for a 60-something man to take out a small business loan to start an independent hardware store, or that that job would protect Matteo’s immigration status, you haven’t been watching Superstore. The things that 112 episodes of Superstore knew, the finale of Superstore worked hard to forget.
We’re also supposed to just be OK, finally, with the idea that only five of the store’s employees were able to keep their jobs at the new fulfillment center. This is the sort of prospect that Superstore was finding horrifying as recently as the first episode of the two-part finale — yet in the finale it’s enough that Sandra (the great Kaliko Kauahi) found the backbone to demand an assistant manager job and that generally inept Marcus (Jon Barinholtz) kept a job, presumably for a hypothetical spinoff. For 112 episodes, Superstore fought for unionization and warned about faceless executives at headquarters steamrolling the minimum wage earners at the cash register and in the warehouse. Then in the finale, it’s good enough that they’re still all getting together for barbecues in the near future. I guess we’re supposed to think that everybody just moved on to other jobs?
Another season or two might have given the writers a way to reconcile the fantasy and the reality. Here, they just put the fantasy out there and hoped that affection for the show was buy-in enough.
And guess what? It mostly was.
Superstore is a series that, after some initial growing pains, was almost always the best version of itself. Maybe as NBC workplace comedies go, it wasn’t quite on that level with peak The Office or Parks and Recreation or Cheers or even Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has one more season to go and looks, as of this moment, like the last vestige of another strong sitcom era for the network. When Dave Foley guested in a late episode, it was meant to be a Kids in the Hall reunion with McKinney, but it really made me reflect that Superstore was probably in that workplace comedy tier with Foley’s NewsRadio — shows that never got the Emmy attention or ratings they maybe deserved, but captured something tremendously accurate about the way professional families can blur antagonism and affection in a way that, yes, resembles a family.
Superstore probably wasn’t as funny as NewsRadio at its sharpest. Few shows are. It was much more “real,” though. Broadcast TV is a medium that tries as hard as it can to ignore economic stratification. Once shows exist as vehicles for advertising, everybody has to believe they can afford to buy all of the same electric cars, light beers and boner pills. Because Superstore didn’t go home with its characters, it was never the sort of blue-collar show that The Connors or Shameless might be.
It was a better blue-collar show, though, about the mechanics of capitalism and how they impact the people on the ground floor. When Superstore looked at unionization efforts or the hollowness of diversity programs or the way a flawed immigration system impacts well-meaning individuals, it did so with a clarity few shows could rival. Superstore was the perfect series for TV’s return from COVID-19, underlining how retail workers were deemed essential by state governments, yet treated as fungible moving pieces by their bosses. While a show like Grey’s Anatomy might capture COVID-19 from a position people have spent 12 months trying to avoid and simultaneously revering — our hospitals and brave medical professionals — Superstore reminded us to find shared humanity with the workers in places we’ve been unable to avoid, workers we probably haven’t shown enough respect. For six seasons, Superstore was a smart show about working in America, and in these past few months, I’ve found it a vital show.
For one final half-hour, it was entitled to leave its cynical brain aside and lead with its romantic heart.
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