About midway through Superstore’s season 6 premiere, a customer at Cloud 9, the big-box retailer that the NBC sitcom is set in, is absolutely livid at the idea that she has to wear a mask in the store. Furious at being asked to mask up or leave, she accuses the floor manager, Glenn (Mark McKinney), of working for Satan. Glenn, a devout Christian, is absolutely horrified: “That is the one person I would never work for!” he responds. It’s funny because it’s true: You have to sell your soul to someone to make rent in America, and there are plenty of buyers who aren’t the literal devil. That said, the non-devils don’t care about you either. As we see in Superstore, the staff of Cloud 9 has been left to fend for themselves in the middle of a pandemic.
Like just about everything else in 2020, the premiere of Superstore is a different start to the season than originally planned. Told in a series of vignettes taking place between March and the present, we see the staff of Cloud 9 come to grips with each phase of the pandemic. There’s the initial shock, the customers fighting over toilet paper, the lack of support from corporate management that doesn’t send them PPE, and yes, even a Tiger King obsession. (“We’re a little embarrassed by it,” one employee tells her co-worker after the reality-show mania faded in summer.)
I know it doesn’t sound particularly funny, but that’s just a quirk of the workplace comedy genre — try and describe The Office in a way that makes anyone laugh. It’s hard! Work sucks, quoth the bard, often emphatically so, and the joy of workplace sitcoms is in commiserating. Seeing characters deal with co-workers and customers as bad or worse than yours, and responding in ways you probably can’t but wish you could, is cathartic as hell. Labor in America is riddled with indignities. Superstore is fond of reminding us that qualifications have little to do with who your boss is, and how they’ll support you in a pandemic.
And so “Essential,” the premiere, is an episode about doing your best in spite of how indifferent the world is to you. The Cloud 9 staff has to make their own hand sanitizer amid a shortage while managers beg corporate for more PPE. A few industrious employees hoard products so they’ll have something after the panic-buyers clear out the shelves. As dire as this sounds, it’s also a story about the comedy of errors that comes with any new status quo: an overzealous sanitizing robot that sprays too much disinfectant everywhere, some truly bad Zoom calls, and co-workers who overshare on an entirely new level. (“In my panic dream last night, the person clubbing me to death was Topher Grace!”) The only way to cope with that indifference is by laughing at it.
“Essential” isn’t just a good bit of comedy about the pandemic (which is a commendable feat in itself). It’s also a good introduction to Superstore, a deeply humane sitcom that is willing to use its premise of working at a national retail chain as a platform to highlight all sorts of connected social issues, from ICE enforcement of immigration (really!) to unionization and labor rights. There is genuinely sweet character growth and rewarding ongoing plots — one of the lingering questions in the first couple of episodes this season is whether or not Jonah (Ben Feldman), an employee hired at the start of the series, will go with his partner Amy (America Ferrera) to her new corporate job in California — which make it a great binge, but not to the point where it’s inaccessible for those who might want to start watching right now without catching up.
In Superstore, the world is rarely getting any better, and there aren’t a lot of options for many of its cast members. They’re happy to be working, but they also realize that particular gratitude can be used by their employers to take advantage of them. The hope — and comedy — of the show is in when they realize they can care about each other, and decide to work together. This isn’t the year we planned for, and it’s brought a lot of pain, but we can still lift each other up, and make each other laugh. Nothing’s better than pooping on company time.