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Inside Beat

Exploring themes in 'Superstore' sitcom

Ben Feldman, America Ferrera and Nico Santos star in the NBC show "Superstore." – Photo by WPXI See & Be Seen / Twitter

I am a sitcom-watching fiend. I love watching all kinds of sitcoms. At the end of last semester, I ended up binging all six seasons of “Community,” now my all-time number one fave. And the semester before that? “Superstore” on NBC.

In between bus rides to and from Busch campus to the College Avenue campus, I found just enough relaxing minutes to pull out the next episode in the chronicles of “Superstore” and binge-watch to my heart’s content.

“Superstore” follows the lives of overworked, badly paid and mistreated retail workers. In the pilot episode, Jonah Simms, played by Ben Feldman, is hired to be an employee at Cloud 9 Store #1217 in St. Louis, Missouri. Amy Sosa, played by America Ferrera, Dina Fox, played by Lauren Ash and Glenn Sturgis, played by Mark McKinney, are all workers at Cloud 9 too.

Between the amazing actors and the well-timed, comedic plot, I think there are more than enough motivating factors to convince you to catch up with “Superstore” and follow the release of season six in real-time, every Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC, but I can also think of a few more reasons.

Classism

When Simms first meets Sosa, he instantly makes a horrible first impression by assuming she is a customer and said, “I know, I don’t seem like the kind of person who would work in a place like this.”

Sosa plays along until one of her employees asks her for permission to take a break. A little shell-shocked and dumbfounded, Simms stands there gaping like a fish as Sosa schools him in the number one lesson of working in retail — don’t piss off the manager.

It seems to be this eternal wisdom that anybody who attends business school or gets a “real job” is somehow better than the everyday retail workers or big-box employees. That certainly is the case with Simms, who's a drop-out from business school and comes from a rich family, thereby classifying himself as the ultimate savior of humanity in the store.

This show expertly portrays just how far-fetched all of Simms’s ideas seem to a crowd of working day folk who barely ever have enough money to take care of their family from week to week.

Simms, with no family of his own to care for and a boatload of useless college credits, always goes into some hair-brained scheme, not understanding the dichotomy between his position of privilege and his coworkers’ positions of survival. Honestly, Simms is supposed to represent the audience.

From episodes on healthcare to the selling of guns, Simms is always trying to take the lead and make it seem as if everything is possible, which to him, it is. In the episode titled, “Health Fund,” Simms attempts to create an insurance method for the employees to buy into, which ultimately fails due to the same reason any insurance company does.

In fact, one employee suggested that the plan should just “Cover everything, exclude no one, and make it affordable,” to which Simms frustratingly said, “Why didn’t we think of that”? As if healthcare was easy to solve.

Yet, Simms does this over and over again, like in the case of gun owners buying from the store. He tries to refuse to sell guns to the customers, to which Sosa said, “You don’t want to sell guns? It’s your job. Be a grown-up.” It’s this dynamic between the dreamer and the realist that shakes the audience awake from their privileged perspective.

Whenever the audience gets hopelessly frustrated with the condition the workers are put in, we support Simms’s plans. Then three-quarters of the way into the episode, we realize just how naïve Simms was being the whole time and desperately plead for him to turn back and just conform.

Can’t you see that you’re just making it worse for everyone else in the store? Can’t you just be quiet and let the workers go home?

The show never lets you truly hate Simms though, because his awkwardness and genuine thoughtfulness are enough to make you forgive him. And the show honestly does try to come up with solutions for the employees, but it can only stretch the confines of reality so much. Healthcare isn’t affordable for these workers. Refusing to sell guns isn’t a prerogative a single employee has.

Also, unlike his brother or other people of more income in the show, Simms knows how to take a joke. He can laugh at himself just as any other character could, which makes anybody respect him all the more for being the butt of the joke 95 percent of the time.

Undocumented immigrants

Mateo Fernando Aquino Liwanag, played by Nico Santos, also the actor who played Oliver T'sien in “Crazy Rich Asians,” is one of the funniest characters on the show, simply because he might be the pettiest. From complaining that Simms is sucking up to Sosa or generally being picky, he is unlikeable to the max.

In fact, when Liwanag’s lawyer comes to the store asking for good stories to tell of Liwanag during his immigration hearing, none of the coworkers are able to muster up any.

In the season four finale, Liwanag is found out to be an undocumented immigrant, using a fake social security number to continue working at Cloud 9. He is eventually caught by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and transported to a detention center.

The showrunners, Jonathan Green and Gabe Miller, employed Define American to better educate themselves on writing Liwanag’s scenes. The whole point is that Liwanag might not be this savior or this amazing contributor to American society, but he still deserves to not be forcibly detained and removed from the country.

The show is so nuanced in their depiction of minorities. Sure, Liwanag isn’t the best person, but he works hard at his job, has friends that he’s close to and has a family and a life in America that no one should take away.

Unions

This is probably the most fraught topic of the show, not because there is controversy surrounding it, rather because the show never really reaches a conclusion on this front. Every time the characters seem close to unionizing and acquiring the demands they set forth, the world at large effectively denies them any opportunity.

In season five, episode 10, Simms believes that he has effectively requested unionization from the company, only to later find out that the company was bought out and that their request was effectively moot.

Yet, even Simms, who is the most gung-ho about unionizing realizes that unions are both good and bad

The coronavirus disease pandemic (COVID-19)

“Our goal was to never make light of COVID and just to find those funny, interpersonal or character moments, especially things that retail workers have to deal with and how much their lives have changed. It was definitely a line to walk,” Green said. “(But) we knew we could get a lot of comedy out of the relatable side effects of living through a pandemic — just the weirdness of what life is like now.”

That is exactly what they did with Thursday’s episode. From customers putting on masks and then taking them off to sneeze to people scrambling over toilet paper, this show has honestly tackled lighter sides of the pandemic and found aspects that can be laughed at. Even when they have to make their own sanitizer out of the alcohol in the store, we can find the humor in the mundane and the slightly desperate.

If you're looking for a laugh and some genuine happiness, then please consider this show, because it honestly never disappoints and promises to make you rethink some of the things you thought you knew.


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