Amidst the proliferation of workplace comedies in the wake of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Superstore is probably the best contender for their successor, right down to the characters, narrative arcs and style of comedies. One generation, later, however, we’re in a very different kind of workplace, one that is probably even closer to the experience of most Americans than the downsized office park of Scranton or the budget-drained civic life of Pawnee. This time, the location is a Big Box convenience store – Cloud 9 – that is clearly modelled on Wal-Mart, with the main cast of characters revolving around Amy (America Ferrera), a longtime employee of the store; Jonah (Ben Feldman), a new arrival and burgeoning love interest; Dina (Lauren Ash), the assistant manager; Garrett (Colton Dunn), a sarcastic and charismatic employee; Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom), a younger worker who is pregnant as the series opens; and, finally, Glenn (Mark McKinney), the store manager. Between those main players there are a host of other characters who are gradually introduced over the course of the first two seasons, as well as a series of different subplots that pitch the relationship between characters in ever new, comic and unpredictable ways.
From the outset, Superstore tackles a considerably more challenging milieu for comedy than The Office and Parks and Recreation – minimum-wage labour, and the extent to which the workplace has become synonymous with minimum-wage labour in post-recession America. First and foremost, that ramifies in the removal of anything resembling regional texture (let alone the regional texture so precious to quality television and indie comedy), since while the Cloud 9 store in question is notionally set in the suburbs of St. Louis, there’s never any real sense of a world outside the store, which could be set anywhere across the wider Midwest. More specifically, it’s impossible to make a series of any kind about Big Box labour without factoring in union-busting, low wages and exploitative conditions as a fact of life, which raises considerable challenges for a comedy in terms of how to include that without trivialising it in the process. To some extent, Superstore accommodates that by focusing upon the sheer picaresque absurdity of corporate paranoia, and especially union-panic, with an early subplot making it clear that the mere mention of the word “unionization” is enough to get four or five executives in to take control of the situation. Similarly, the series draws heavily on both The Office and Parks and Recreation in its depictions of professional development, with manager Glenn regularly calling his workers into the meeting space to naively deliver the 50s-styled “union danger” educational films handed down by corporate.
On their own, those features probably wouldn’t be enough to ensure that Superstore could handle the thorny workplace arrangements of Big Box labour with sufficient sensitivity, if only because no comedy could deal with those arrangements with sufficient sensitivity, at least not directly or head on. In order to address that bind, series creator Justin Spitzer makes his most drastic formal departure from The Office and Parks and Recreation in his refusal to depict or envisage any kind of personal or communal space beyond the confines of Cloud 9 itself. Where both Dunder Mifflin and the Pawnee Parks Department were very much the dominant spaces in their respective shows, there was still an awareness that the characters had some kind of private and personal space outside work, as well as various communal spaces that they all shared. While those spaces may not have been sketched out in as much detail as might occur in an earlier, more domestically oriented form of situation comedy, it wasn’t uncommon for these series to spend an episode at someone’s house, or structure an episode around an incident that took place outside the workplace proper. Finally, in both series the ambit of the workplace expanded considerably as the narrative proceeded, with the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin gradually opening up channels of communication with other branches, and the Pawnee Parks Department flying in bigwigs from Indianapolis to help deal with its budget deficit. While this expansion of the workplace may often have been paradoxically framed in terms of crisis, downsizing and rationalisation, it nevertheless spoke to some kind of world outside the workplace, even – or especially – if it was a world in which the workplace itself often seemed to have no stable or proper place.
In Superstore, by contrast, the outside world is bracketed off in a much more radical and existential way. Not only do we never see any of the characters’ homes or witness them in external, communal spaces, but there’s only the barest sense of them occupying a zone outside the store in the first place. It’s not uncommon for workplace comedies to relocate romance, family and generational communion from the domestic to the professional sphere – to in effect conceive of the workplace as a modified or diminished domestic sphere – but that’s taken to quite a radical place in Superstore, where the entire cycle of birth, life and death seems to be seamlessly co-opted into the store’s diurnal rhythms. From Cheyenne, who is pregnant and barely eighteen, to Myrtle, the store’s oldest worker, in her mid-eighties, there’s a sense that every possible experience has been co-opted and contained by the Cloud 9 franchise, producing quite a complex identity politics for a show so clearly aimed at America’s heartland, even or especially as these various identities are gathered under the whiteness of the Cloud 9 brand itself. While The Office and Parks and Recreation didn’t have soundtracks per se, they still felt more scored than the weird soundscape that ensues here, as every possible musical riposte to the store – whether ambient or anthemic, incidental or incredulous – is absorbed into its radio channel. Every couple of scenes, we cut to a fragment of some iconic or comic musical refrain, but it’s always a fragment, and always denuded and flattened in the way songs are when blasted over a Big Box speaker system.
On the face of it, that might not sound much like comedy, and there’s no doubt that it subtends even the most raucous moments of the series with a bleakness that makes both The Office and Parks and Recreation seem quite childlike by comparison. Yet the series’ ingenuity is precisely to it take everything that can’t be articulated, ideologically, within a primetime comedy, and conceive of it spatially, as a world outside the store that can never be properly conceptualised from within the store. As it turns out, this spatial horizon turns out to form a critical part of the film’s comic signature, with many of the jokes, recurring gags and set pieces focusing on the fringes of the store – either the interfaces between the store and the outside world (especially the parking lot and the loading dock) or the interfaces between the public and private worlds of the store, and the different spaces inhabited by staff and customers. To some extent, this is a literal threshold, but given that the store itself fabricates private spaces in its homewares and lifestyle section, and given that the sheer expanse of the store often facilitates quite private discussions in the midst of publically accessible space, the result is more to evoke a shifting, mercurial interface between consumer and employee experience that is built into the Cloud 9 experience itself, and its promise to make customers feel at home as the people who work there. No surprise, then, that the comedy also often revolves around moments at which the staff are forced to conceive of themselves as customers – or try to conceive of themselves as customers – opening up a dialogue with clients, stakeholders and the public sphere that was only ever dealt with at a distant remove in The Office and Parks, and even then in quite a broad and caricatured way, whether at Michael Scott’s conferences or Leslie Knope’s town meetings.
While Superstore may not be able to envisage the grand narrative arcs of its forebears, then, there is a different kind of trajectory and teleology here, since for all the focus on incidental activity – or even because of it – the series continually suggest that something must take us beyond the confines of the store, or rupture its boundaries in some kind of emphatic way. As it turns out, the catalyst in both the first and second season is industrial action. In the first, a strike on the part of the workers paves the way for a finale in which the entirety of the action takes place outside the store for the first time (albeit immediately outside the store). In the second, a series of layoffs, and concerns about layoffs, culminate with the prospect of a radically reconfigured workplace, only for a tornado to destroy the structure of the building even more thoroughly than the planned cuts, leaving the staff with only the husk of a store, and the prospect of three months unpaid leave, as the season comes to a close. At the moment of writing this, the third season has not yet come to an end, but it’s my guess that the rupture will have to be even more radical in this case, if only because of how seamlessly the store is remade in its original image following its apparently unsalvageable decimation by the eye of the tornado. Whereas Dunder Mifflin had branches, and the Pawnee Parks Department had affiliations, Cloud 9 only has iterations, and the traumatic conclusion of both seasons is that even the most drastic industrial and natural destruction isn’t really enough to prevent the franchise simply reiterating itself once again
In that kind of environment, charisma understandably feels more precarious than in The Office and Parks and Recreation, but that also renders it more precious as well, with Lauren Ash, in particular, putting in a show-stealing performance whose energy somehow manages to evoke Melissa McCarthy and Jodie Foster in a single breath while never feeling reducible to either. Similarly, the tone for the most part, is genial, comic and absurd, from the union-busting “role play” mandated by staff training, to hijacking a pair of polling booths for the sake of electing a pro-labour candidate, As with any comedy, too, even the most dramatic and radical workplace encounters have to be subsumed back into a semblance of normality, although in Superstore it’s the absurdity of that normality that’s precisely the point, with many of the later episodes spinning out into more surreal and hallucinatory spectacles in their desperation to envisage something beyond the store. Of course, the limit to what can be envisaged isn’t simply imposed by the store, but by the limits and conventions of the sitcom itself, with the result that Superstore is arguably even more formally innovative than both The Office and Parks in the way in which it gestures towards an ideological possibility that renders its own comic address, and its microcosmic focus on situations rather than broad systems, untenable. Part of the ingenuity of the series comes from the way in which it continually inhabits the limits of its own genre markings, a decision that seemed to have alienated critics over the course of the first season, but whose tonal precarity has manage to gain it a quite loyal fanbase as well.
In other words, even the genre of the sitcom has been somewhat co-opted by Cloud 9, with many of its displays seeming to be set up for a three-camera address, and the employees themselves often concocting comic scenarios and mise-en-scenes as a survival mechanism. For all the handheld immediacy of The Office and Parks, then, no other workplace series I’ve seen feels as thoroughly embedded within its world as Superstore, whose camera is as immediately and as palpably handheld as in those earlier shows, but doesn’t guarantee us any kind of critical or ironic distance this time around (there are, for example, no direct acknowledgments of the audience). Caught somewhere between the authority of an omniscient camera and the authority of a directly acknowledged camera, the series occupies an odd cusp between diegetic and non-diegetic space, and between the situation comedy as a representation of working life and situation comedy as a structure of feeling that has been absorbed into working life, a process that may have been started by Michael Scott – and David Brent’s – aspirations to fuse leadership and stand-up, but which has been thoroughly absorbed and normalised by even the most anonymous corporations by this point. Faced with a late capitalist milieu in which the catharsis of comedy has itself been corporatised, Superstore never gives itself over to comedy as ebulliently as its predecessors, but never quite abandons it either, and it’s in that tension that its wit and beauty finally lies.