By Stephanie Sartori
If you haven’t seen NBC’s “Superstore” yet, you’re missing out. It’s a workplace comedy, taking place in a “superstore” similar to a Super Walmart that has every possible department like groceries, clothes, and home goods, plus a cafe. The characters are average people trying to make ends meet by working full time at a store dubbed “Cloud Nine.” Most of them have been working there for many years, so this is the career path they’ve set for themselves. Their job is far from glamorous, and they often have to deal with the bizarre behavior of customers and the antics of their coworkers. “Superstore” is different from other series’ because it explores the idea of what it means to live as an average working class American.
Most programs (both scripted and non-scripted) focus on wealthy, prosperous people. Television doesn’t like to focus on economic struggles because “most Americans aren’t interested in watching TV shows where the main characters are poor.” Rather, viewers want to see a way of life that they can aspire to. Seeing wealth and dreaming of a “perfect” life can be an escape from reality for many people. Not only are wealthy characters something that viewers are more interested in watching, they want to relate to them as well. “Watching (the 1%) fail can make them easier to identify with as human beings: I, too, fuck up, so maybe I’m just like them.” Because working class jobs and people are not held in high regard, viewers won’t want to relate to them as much as they want to relate to the upper class.
“Superstore” depicts the working class by including various retail jobs that exist in a large store, like different kinds of managers and supervisors, and floor, warehouse, and register workers. In the latest plotline of “Superstore,” main character Amy gets promoted from shift supervisor to manager of Cloud Nine, meaning she gets a much larger paycheck. She eventually throws her daughter a large and lavish quinceanera, which Amy specifically says is a result of her pay raise (Season 4, episode 17). The show also tackles issues that working class people face in the workplace, and they write about these issues “in a way that makes it feel vital in its best episodes and grasping beyond its reach in its worst… Though it tackles timely issues, it always uses them to dig deeper into the interpersonal dynamics of the characters in the store.”
The characters deal with a few main troubles that are recurring in multiple episodes, including undocumented immigration, minimum wage, and maternity leave. While these topics clearly don’t relate to every working class American in real life, undocumented immigrants are commonly in the working class, many women deal with a short or non-existent period of time for maternity leave, and many working class people are paid only minimum wage (or less). “Superstore” doesn’t glamorize or dramatize these issues. They write about them in a way that’s true to life, and they make it feel as though it could happen to any working class individual.
The closest comparison to “Superstore” that I can think of is “The Middle” (another underrated comedy in my opinion). “The Middle” is just that- a show about middle of the road people doing middle of the road things and living their middle of the road lives. Like “Superstore,” a lot of the plots in “The Middle” revolve around finding ways to survive economically and their identity as working class Americans. Some shows may be comparable to “Superstore” in their topical nature (like “Brooklyn 99” or “Black-ish”), but they still have characters in well respected professions that don’t ever worry about finances. Working at a place like Walmart is generally not respected nor does it pay well, so “Superstore” provides representation for people in the low-wage demographic who are not often seen on TV. For the majority of series that include characters that have material wealth, it “isn’t essential to the characters’ lives; it’s incidental.”
Personally, I like “Superstore” because I think the episodic nature of TV allows for topics to be written into the show as they’re happening in real life. “Superstore” breaks down life in a demographic that’s not often talked about, but one that is constantly affected by policies and social issues. TV is a medium that has the ability to directly reflect society and thereby be a space for a dialogue about society. Even “after Trump’s election, elites are still struggling to understand the class tensions and coastal-vs.-heartland dynamics that shook up the political landscape… Perhaps the coastal, Ivy League set wouldn’t need these kinds of families explained to them through an academic lens if our culture were more interested in their stories.”