Now a third of the way through its second season, Superstore has asserted its place as one of the best workplace comedies currently on television. It’s a series with a perfect understanding of the mix of drudgery and surreality generated by the fluorescent landscape of a big box store, a versatile cast who can mix into any combination to drive a story forward, and an increasing interest in tackling topics more complex than daily retail worker boredom. NBC’s shown increased faith in the show—a friendly Olympics-adjacent timeslot, then the coveted back nine—and it continues to reward that faith by growing more assured on a weekly basis.
Its confidence is now so high that it’s unafraid to dive into the hellishly contentious world of the 2016 election, as “Election Day” brings an official polling place to Cloud 9. Smartly, it avoids any real engagement with the real-world politics, instead keeping its focus on the characters and using the heightened stakes of the day to drive preexisting storylines. The managerial tensions between Glenn and Dina, the undefined relationship between Amy and Jonah, Mateo’s undocumented citizenship status—all of them are put through the wringer as the fate of our nation is decided off-camera.
“Election Day” does introduce the idea that the fate of the nation could be decided here in Cloud 9, when Glenn and Dina’s bickering leads to a ballot box drowned in an entire pitcher of coffee. Superstore is always particularly good when it pits the wishy-washy Glenn against the iron-fisted Dina, and by raising the stakes from employee policies to potential felony both of them are ratcheted up as a result. Dina’s realization that any of these ballots could be game-changing swing votes (no, not that one) leads her to get drunk on the power of a god she tries so hard to keep from the workplace, and Glenn’s desire to avoid conflict is so great that he ends up literally casting the ballots to the wind by bringing a fan into the office.
While the actual impact of the ballots is a real thing, the focus quickly shifts to the more real consequences for Glenn and Dina. Season two of Superstore has gradually turned up the conflicts between the two and their different styles of management, culminating in Glenn finally blowing up at Dina’s authoritarian moves in last week’s “Halloween Theft.” Now they’re forced to work together, and it’s as full of friction as expected, Glenn so flustered by the idea of legal consequences that he thinks five years in “prism” might not be so bad.
It’s an uneasy truce that can’t last, especially as “Election Day” decides there’s more comedic potential in these two fighting, and it creates the perfect scenario for that when they go to the recently re-thumbed Marcus and he advises them to get their partners to confess on tape. Mark McKinney and Lauren Ash bring a tremendous amount of commitment to their roles, and rarely has that been on display to the extent that it is when both of them try to record the other. It’s a duel of unsubtle setups that anyone other than these two would catch, culminating in a screaming match of good (Dina) and bad (Glenn) impressions of the other, and begging for a bottle episode of the two just tearing each other to pieces for 22 minutes.
A more insidious version of voter tampering comes from the corporate overlords of Cloud 9, who have supplied their employees with official election guides that push for pro-business candidates. (A tactic achieved by pointing out which candidates are “anti-bad guys” and which ones aren’t on record as being “pro-America.”) Amy and Jonah immediately form opposition to this move, and both do so for reasons very much in character: Amy’s upset that her fellow workers are once again being taken advantage of by uncaring executives, and Jonah’s excited to both take a stand on an important issue and use his high school editing experience to design the new pamphlet.
The experience spurs a new layer of collaboration between Amy and Jonah, and one of the more epic montages of voter education ever put to film—only for both to come to a screeching halt when Jonah’s new girlfriend Naomi drops by the store. Of all its elements the will they/won’t they of Superstore is one of its trickier elements, given that Amy is married with a daughter and the writers have to gradually pick away at at that marriage before anything can happen with the two. Introducing a love interest for Jonah is either a complication or a contrivance depending on how you feel about these two, but either way the lingering glances and awkward excuses are another mark that this relationship could go beyond simply trading 1950s Brooklyn accents.
Speaking of laying the groundwork for future stories, Superstore revisits the topic of Mateo’s undocumented status when Dina states all employees need to vote. On the surface Mateo’s scheme to acquire an “I Voted” sticker is the lightest of the evening, flavored with his huffy indignation that no one knows who James Brolin is and nauseated disgust at a sea of nacho cheese and newborn rats, but the fact that the show hasn’t forgotten this aspect since they introduced it in “Olympics” is encouraging. Introduced as the catty employee in the premiere, this development—and Mateo’s ongoing relationship with district manager Jeff—have made him unexpectedly one of the show’s more interesting characters. And with store gossip Cheyenne now privy to both those secrets, it’s an open question as to how long they’ll stay secret.
The real joke of “Election Day” ends up being that for all the importance these people place on their problems, in the grand scheme of things they don’t matter all that much. Mateo gets screamed away by Dina when he tries to show off his sticker, a sticker that it turns out he could have gotten if he’d gone to the other poll worker table. Amy’s preferred candidate wins the election but she’s got no one to share it with, save the fairly dense Marcus—who misreads things worse than Jonah ever could. And the poll workers notice the discrepancy in the ballots counted and laugh it off as being a better average than last year, leaving Glenn and Dina to scream impressions of each other into the void. It’s an ending that lacks for immediate resolution, but as Superstore likes to prove, those issues will still be there the next time you punch in.
- Best “Life In A Big Box Store” interstitial: A Cloud 9 customer uses the voting booth as a changing room, leaving her spare garments on the befuddled poll workers’ table. (Runner-up, a sequence where NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson schools a young aisle driver.)
- Proving Superstore’s government is representative democracy, everyone gets good moments: Cheyenne’s wide-eyed stare when Mateo admits he’s an illegal alien, Garrett’s aggressive disinterest in any of the Election Day shenanigans, Myrtle being dragged off by Marcus and shrieking about her bones. No Sandra though, which is a disappointment.
- Of this ensemble, Lauren Ash has emerged as my favorite. Dina’s absolute confidence in herself and penchant for vaguely disturbing statements is steadily bringing her into the territory of iconic NBC characters such as Dwight Schrute and Ron Swanson. Her best line tonight: “A lot of people died so you could vote. Also a lot of horses died. They always forget about the horses.”
- Any guesses what question Syd asked Dina that resulted in the answers Buzz Aldrin, Bruce Lee, or Murphy Brown?
- Jonah and Amy are right, Palatino is a nice font.
- Cheyenne’s homemade “I Votted” sticker simultaneously produces a touched “Awwwww” and a condescending “Ohhhh.”
- Glenn: “My head is in the game! I’ve been up since 4 a.m. I’ve already had three meals!” Dina: “It’s 7 a.m. That’s too many meals.”
- “We’re offering up big discounts on all American products. So that’s 40 percent off your generic medications, inferior electronics, and cheese curls!”
- “Not to put my head in the lion’s mouth, but now I’m thinking Times New Roman.”
- “Maybe he’s drunk. There are a lot of drunk people here.”