Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
From left: Ben Feldman (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC), Colton Dunn (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC), Lauren Ash (Photo: Tina Thorpe/NBC), Kaliko Kauahu (Photo: Chris Haston/NBC), Mark McKinney (Photo: Tina Thorpe/NBC), Nichole Sakura (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC), and Nico Santos (Photo: Tyler Golden/NBC)

The cast of Superstore reflects on the show’s legacy as a working-class comedy

From left: Ben Feldman (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC), Colton Dunn (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC), Lauren Ash (Photo: Tina Thorpe/NBC), Kaliko Kauahu (Photo: Chris Haston/NBC), Mark McKinney (Photo: Tina Thorpe/NBC), Nichole Sakura (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC), and Nico Santos (Photo: Tyler Golden/NBC)

Graphic: Allison Corr

Over a meritorious six-season run, Superstore mastered its comedic voice. The NBC sitcom about the employees of the St. Louis store of big box chain Cloud 9 found its humor in creative visual gags (customers going wild during the act breaks) and fleshing out its ensemble with amusing character traits like Garrett’s (Colton Dunn) sarcastic intercom announcements, Dina’s (Lauren Ash) pet birds, and Jonah’s (Ben Feldman) undying love for The Americans (that one, frankly, is understandable). Superstore dazzles amid TV’s crowded workplace sitcom genre due to consummate writing and a talented, diverse cast. Even as its finale approaches (on March 25) , the series continues to offer distinctive commentary on social and national issues while creating empathy for retail workers with its entertaining yet detailed insights into the working class.

Created by Justin Spitzer and co-produced by Jonathan Green and Gabe Miller (who took over showrunning duties for the final two seasons), Superstore premiered in 2015, ready to offer its perspectives on various issues through a humorous yet grounded lens. This approach became clear with season one’s ending, which triggered a series-long arc of unionization and labor rights, and runs through the current season’s take on how blue-collar workers deal with the hazards of COVID-19. The tagline for Superstore’s sixth and final season—“more essential than ever”—encapsulates the workers’ daily lives during an ongoing pandemic while also speaking to the many larger themes the show has covered, such as wage gaps, cultural appropriation, gun laws, and immigration, transforming Superstore into essential TV viewing over the last six years.

Not every outing was a success, but as it went on, Superstore found its groove and expanded on its critical analysis of various other subjects with episodes like season three’s “Healthcare Fund,” wherein Amy (America Ferrera) and Jonah try to come up with a solution for the company’s terrible insurance plan, or season four’s “Maternity Leave,” in which new mother Amy learns she doesn’t qualify for maternity leave and has to work through a tired, emotionally messy day. Superstore also delved into serialized stories to keep audiences invested long-term, most prominently with Jonah and Amy’s on-again, off-again romance (akin to The Office’s Jim and Pam or Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Jake and Amy), the Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) and Carol (Irene White) rivalry, and the effect of Dina and Glenn’s (Mark McKinney) opposing managing styles.

Ahead of Superstore’s series finale, the cast spoke to The A.V. Club about finding their chemistry and the legacy of the show, especially as epitomized in one of the most defining episodes: the season-four finale. The episode, “Employee Appreciation Day,” aired in May 2019, in the midst of the Trump administration and its overtly xenophobic immigration policies. U.S. Immigration And Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers raid the Cloud 9 in search of sales associate Mateo (Nico Santos), a Filipino American undocumented immigrant who surrenders and is taken away after his friends and fellow co-workers attempt in vain to aid him. This finds a comedic balance to the significant ICE raids scene and keeps the humor going with the store workers’ attempts to distract ICE officers and Sandra’s lackluster engagement.

“Employee Appreciation Day” isn’t just an audience favorite–it’s one of the cast’s preferred episodes as well, because of its realism and impact. “I think it opened up a lot of conversations. I’m most proud of that fact,” Santos tells The A.V. Club. This particular angle continued to shape Mateo’s arc and unwrap layers of his seemingly snide personality. “He is bitchy at first glance but as the story builds up, you realize why. There’s so much at stake for him.”

Mateo’s story represents what millions of immigrants in the U.S. are going through, putting a familiar (if fictional) face on a contentious issue. Santos points to a study by Define American, a nonprofit advocacy organization that consulted on the immigrant plot, which found that storylines like Mateo’s can help “compensate for the absence of real-life contact with immigrants.” Santos says, “It’s a great legacy to leave behind.”

Lauren Ash, portrayer of unrelenting rule-follower Dina, shares that “Employee Appreciation Day” is the episode that will stay with her. “I remember at that point, there was a lot of heaviness around the subject. People felt a disconnect or that it was overblown if it didn’t affect them. Mateo’s a beloved character and my hope is that a percentage of the audience could watch this and it would be more personal for them,” Ash says. “If you can present an issue through a TV show without forcing it but showing it as is, it’s a real gift.”

Superstore was adept at issues-based storytelling, but the sitcom was never just about taking on real-world grievances. It focused heavily on evolving its characters along with their unique brand of humor. “Season one Dina would have never helped Mateo during the ICE raid,” Ash says. Dina’s progression into a multi-dimensional character outside of her initial archetype is a testament to the talent of Ash and the writing team. Ferrera, whose charged performance lit up the (small) screen, was undoubtedly the lead, but Superstore excelled when its ensemble took center stage, as when the cast interacted in the store’s break room or warehouse. These scenes usually thrived on one-liners and quips from guest stars and supporting characters like Marcus (Jon Barinholtz), Justine (Kelly Schumann), and Sayid (Amir M. Korangy). These scenes helped form a deeper understanding of not only all the characters but also the weird world of Cloud 9, a retail store setting that itself allows for a barrage of jokes. Kaliko Kauahi, who plays Sandra, says her favorite bit was the appearance of random feet in the store throughout the years: “I like that we mention it so casually in meetings when, in fact, it’s so odd and scary. You can see it’s become a normalcy for the people who work at that store.”

The strength of Superstore’s ensemble was tested early on in season six, as Ferrera’s exit from the show was announced. Like Steve Carrell leaving The Office, Ferrera’s departure raised concerns about whether the show would still be able to pack the same punch. Fortunately, the chemistry that had arisen organically among the cast kept the team together on screen; as they have leaned into each other’s vibes and specific mannerisms, their on-screen dynamic mirrors their off-screen bond.

The Superstore set has also been home to a few pranks, including a recurring one inspired by Feldman’s revelation that he often went up for the same roles as B.J. Novak, with whom he shares a considerable resemblance. Ash, who initiated the pranks with Dunn, reveals, “It started when Ben was directing his first episode. We had the crew change the name on his chair to B.J.’s and it took him three days to notice… We kept amping it up every season to larger things like trailer doors, parking spots, watermarks on his side. The pièce de résistance came in season six when we had our PA Elizabeth change the name on his COVID testing card and it wasn’t until he saw the nose swab package that he turned and said ‘They made an honest mistake.’ That was it for me, that even in his mask he thought someone mistook him for B.J.” Feldman, who shared that he became friends with Novak after bumping into each other during auditions (the two both recurred on The Mindy Project), says that the prank was too well-executed to be mad at in retrospect.

The collaborative spirit of Superstore encompasses the cast and the creative team, as performers are encouraged to imbue their roles with their own personalities. Kauahi initially joined Superstore for just one episode as a timid punching bag in the first season, but her tremendous comic timing urged the creator and showrunners to keep her on as a recurring star until season four, when she was promoted to series regular. Now, as her co-star Nichole Sakura (Cheyenne) also suggests, some of Kauahi’s assertiveness has seeped into Sandra, who has battled a frenzied co-worker, gotten married, and adopted a son. “That transition was gradual but felt right,” Kauahi says. “I would’ve been happy with Sandra just being told to ‘shut up’ by everyone. I did not foresee her personal and professional journey, but she’s always wanted to be part of the gang and now she finally is. She’s still going to be picked last for the kickball team but at least she’s in the group now. She’s happy with that and especially in this final season, it really shows.”

Mark McKinney, who plays store manager turned floor worker turned co-manager Glenn Sturgis, says the collaboration with the writing team helped him focus on the process of filming and not just on his character. “I felt, ‘Oh, this is a real TV show’ during the second day of shooting the pilot when Lauren and I just riffed on the spot for a break room scene in which Dina and Glenn are not getting along. [The writers] went with it,” he shares. “We were allowed more and more to discover corners of our characters and that got used in the scene.” McKinney adds that he loved expanding on Glenn’s quirk of belonging to a compromised church. “He thinks he’s got it right but everyone around him hasn’t absorbed the lesson of the gospel.” Ash notes she improv-ed a line early on about Dina’s father leaving her at a gas station, and it turned into canon. In season five’s “Myrtle,” Dean Norris guest starred as Dina’s dad as the two attempt to reconcile in a moving story.

Superstore mixing its comedy with some emotionally heavy moments led to well-rounded performances from everyone, including Feldman, who delivers some of his finest work in the series finale. Feldman tells The A.V. Club that he appreciated how his own character attributes or those of others, including Glenn’s traditional views, weren’t necessarily mocked but given room room to grow. “Idiosyncrasies are naturally funny and with a team of lazier writers, it would’ve been easy to belittle or poke fun at them, but it was presented as a reality and with empathy and compassion.” Feldman is also proud of the unionization storyline, in which the union tries to topple the draining corporatization of the retail sector. Mateo’s arrest and the purchase of Cloud 9 by soul-sucking juggernaut Zephra only fuel the organizing efforts of Jonah, Amy, Sandra, and the rest of the employees. “We are a TV show owned by a parent company owned by a parent company,” Feldman says. “We have corporate overlords and have felt their presence. So it was just rare to see the professional dynamic of workers with the people upstairs play out in a comedy. We were around for the Obama to Trump to Biden administration[s]—what a time in America to represent the working class and culture.”

Superstore did reflect working class struggles while also casting an eye to rising inflation, an inequitable gig economy, and the vanishing middle class. The show managed to relay the difficulties of surviving on minimum wage through all its characters, including sales associate Cheyenne Lee (Nichole Sakura), who starts off as a newly engaged, pregnant teen. When she goes into labor, she delays leaving the store because she needs to clock in more hours for the money. Sakura says she was drawn to this aspect of the show’s realism. “It’s not something you see on network comedies. It’s not even a funny thing, but we find the humor in the seriousness of it,” she notes. “I grew up watching sitcoms where everyone led nice lives in beautiful homes, so it’s nice to see what the lives of those who are limited by their income looks like.” As the show nears its end, Cheyenne has matured into having more confidence and getting promoted to the floor manager position. “It feels like a similar progression for me as an actor who started out green and new to it and now I’m more comfortable,” Sakura says.

Superstore leaves a distinct mark on TV, one that sets it apart from even fellow NBC comedies like The Office (U.S.), Parks And Recreation, The Good Place, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (previously on Fox). Even though the comparisons to The Office exist and will likely continue in the series’ streaming afterlife—in part because Spitzer, Green, and Miller are also alums of that series—Superstore has already established its own legacy. Santos acknowledges that there were always some similarities between the two workplace comedies, but a diverse cast and showcasing an authentic slice of everyday American life makes their series stand out. “[Superstore] resonates because all kinds of people can see themselves in it,” Santos says.

Dunn says that while some of the biggest TV shows come with interesting hooks that can dominate the conversation around them, Superstore eschewed “extravagance” and convoluted storytelling to “[excel] at relatability.” While echoing Santos’ praise for how their topical storytelling fostered greater empathy in viewers, he sums up the lasting appeal of Superstore: “Everyone can just have a good time and laugh, so it was interesting to explore these moments of beauty—to borrow a quote from the pilot—of this very ordinary space.”

Staff Writer (TV)