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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
For six seasons, the NBC comedy "Superstore" has told the story of a fictional big-box store in St. Louis and found humor in serious topics like income inequality, health insurance, unionization and corporate greed. Its final season is airing now, with storylines about COVID-19 and racial justice. But "Superstore" is also a big, broad, good-hearted workplace comedy in the spirit of "The Office," full of wacky oddballs and slow-burning romantic intrigue. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are talking about "Superstore" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining me today from his home in Alexandria, Va., is Ronald Young Jr. Ronald is an audio producer, a film and TV critic, host of the podcast "Leaving The Theater" and associate producer of the new VPM and Witness Docs podcast "Seizing Freedom." Hey, Ronald.
RONALD YOUNG JR: Hello, hello. Great to be here.
THOMPSON: It's great to have you. So as I said in the intro, "Superstore" is wrapping up its sixth and final season on NBC. It was created by Justin Spitzer, who was a writer for "The Office." Until the last handful of episodes, "Superstore" starred America Ferrera as Amy, who's worked her way up from floor work at a store called Cloud 9 to corporate work at its parent company. Along the way, she gets a divorce, has a second child and falls in love with co-worker Jonah, played by Ben Feldman. Jonah is a business school dropout whose quirks include an obsession with NPR and podcasts.
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AMERICA FERRERA: (As Amy) They say people shouldn't meet their heroes, but I'm really glad I did.
BEN FELDMAN: (As Jonah) I once paid $200 to have lunch with Terry Gross from NPR, and she was on her phone the entire time.
THOMPSON: So if Jonah were real, he would definitely be listening right now. The cast has shifted a bit over time, which makes sense given this particular workplace. But the core cast includes the devoutly religious store manager Glenn, played by Mark McKinney; an intense middle manager named Dina, played by Lauren Ash; an undocumented striver named Mateo, played by Nico Santos; ditzy young mom Cheyenne, played by Nichole Sakura; and wisecracking Garrett, played by Colton Dunn. Many more weirdos round out the cast, with a fair bit of airtime given over to the foibles of Cloud 9's customers, who generally behave like pigs.
Ronald, you are a "Superstore" guy. Give me your general thoughts on the show as it's evolved over time.
YOUNG: OK, so when I first started watching this show, I immediately felt like it was the spiritual descendant of "The Office." It's a blue-collar show. It's still a workplace comedy. But I think what this show does that "The Office" doesn't do is it leans way further into the absurdity as a group maybe a little more so than "The Office" does. I think you have a lot of characters that are not only just leaning into the stereotypes, but really embodying the stereotypes in a way...
YOUNG: ...That it sometimes made me a little uncomfortable but, in most times, just made me laugh out loud. I think they obviously have a love story as the central focus. And I guess I should say, one of the central focuses of the plot, much like "The Office," you're looking at Amy and Jonah, wondering will they, won't they, what will their journey be throughout the show? And that's kind of, like, a common thread that you're following. But mostly you're watching a lot of side plots and a lot of commentary about retail workers, about the state of blue-collar work and the state of big-box stores, capitalism, all of that rolled up in, you know, a 22-minute sitcom.
THOMPSON: Yeah, and I really appreciated that about it. I think the will-they-or-won't-they felt like when-they kind of from...
THOMPSON: ...Episode 1 in a way that kind of makes that overarching plotline feel very on-rails. I think the cast is kind of uniformly appealing, so even a formulaic love story is still going to feel appealing. I really appreciated how often this show delves into some of the more serious underbelly of, like, trying to make a living working at a place like this and kind of constantly being undercut and screwed over by corporate every step of the way. Unionization comes up as a plotline on this show quite a bit, but so do the customers that are, like, pouring cereal into their open mouths in the middle of an aisle.
YOUNG: Yeah, I think the show does a very good job. Even the little subtleties of everyone having a roommate - you know, that's something that a lot of other sitcoms don't really address. When somebody has a low-wage job, they're kind of just living in an apartment in the middle of New York, having all this square footage, whereas they're actually addressing in this show, like, Jonah has to have a roommate. Garrett also has to have a roommate. Like, everybody has to live with people, and they have to - they're living by certain circumstances that only come up because they are in a low-wage job, which I think is important. And I like the fact that "Superstore" actually addresses that head-on.
THOMPSON: I'm now 30 years removed from my last retail job, and I still felt a lot of, like, residual...
THOMPSON: ...Kind of sympathetic cringe responses.
THOMPSON: I found particularly - and I know this is a little granular for this early in the conversation, but the way this show deploys music...
THOMPSON: ...I think is so brilliant. They just scatter these little Easter eggs of, like, the song that is playing over the loudspeaker while some customer is doing something idiotic. They're always funny. You hear three seconds of a song, and you're like, is that "New Age Girl" by Deadeye Dick, you know? (Laughter).
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DEADEYE DICK: (Singing) You know she...
THOMPSON: That stuff, I just think - it's very, very finely detailed at the same time that it's very, very broad.
YOUNG: Yeah, I agree. I think - you said granular, but I think that's one of the things that the show does well is pay very close attention to details. I know right now I'm a 30-something-year-old man walking around in the grocery store even now - whenever I hear a song that's, like, from senior year of high school and I'm, like, jamming out in the grocery store...
YOUNG: ...I'm like, oh, no. Oh, no. Is this a grocery store song now? And I think "Superstore" does a very good job of giving you that same feeling, where you're hearing a song - you're just like, oh, this is a song we play in the big-box store now, OK.
YOUNG: But it does a good job of paying attention to those details. Not only that, I think the interstitial bits between the scenes, where the customers are just doing outlandish things inside a big-box store - like you said, pouring cereal into their mouths or babies getting trapped in certain parts - like in cribs or in boxes, in certain parts of the store. I love all of those parts so much, and it just does a really good job with those types of details.
THOMPSON: You know, it's interesting. This show wasn't hugely well reviewed when it first came out. I think there were - a lot of the reviews sort of centered on, like, it's promising; it seems to be kind of building to something. But I think it's very easy, when you entered this show from the beginning, to look at a lot of its component parts and feel like, OK, Dina is basically Dwight Schrute.
THOMPSON: And Glenn has a lot of Michael Scott to his game. There's a certain Jim and Pam - like, you can really tick boxes from "The Office." And it kind of can make the show feel formulaic when you're kind of getting used to it in ways that become easier and easier to digest as it goes along.
YOUNG: Agreed. And I think the one-to-one was exhausting when I first started watching it, but then I think as the show went on, I found myself liking different characters for different reasons. I thought the same thing - Dina is Dwight Schrute.
YOUNG: And it's pretty obvious as it goes on. And I remember I had a feeling where I had to check my old misogyny because I'm sitting there watching it and I'm like, something's irritating about Dina. And then I realized - I was like, wait, she's Dwight. And I was like, but, Ronald, you like Dwight, so why don't you like Dina? And I was like, oh, Ronald, you've got to get it together.
YOUNG: I'm like, are you saying you don't like Dina when she's doing the exact same thing as Dwight because she's a woman? That's not OK. But, I mean, as I watched it, I began to enjoy her more. But I think one of the characters that I really started to enjoy as the show went on was Sandra.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And Sandra is played by Kaliko Kauahi, who is very, very funny.
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FELDMAN: (As Jonah) Hey, Sandra.
FERRERA: (As Amy) What's going on? Where are you going?
KALIKO KAUAHI: (As Sandra) I just got fired. I don't know what happened. Luanne said I was the one who was tweeting, but I swear to God, it wasn't me.
FERRERA: (As Amy) No, we know.
FELDMAN: (As Jonah) Yeah, don't worry. We are not going to let this happen.
FERRERA: (As Amy) We're going to fix this.
KAUAHI: (As Sandra) I never even joined Twitter because I was thinking of running for city council, and you know how my humor can get a little edgy?
YOUNG: Sandra is just a brilliant character. I would say that she's a mix between Toby and Kevin from "The Office," if we're still comparing characters.
YOUNG: But she's a very earnest character, at times very sharp, but also kind of dense, but dense in a very endearing way. But I think I can understand how that would affect the reviews - people watching it, expecting to just seeing a one-to-one and then also being exhausted by that same one-to-one comparison.
THOMPSON: I also felt in the first few seasons, where you're watching a workplace comedy - and you felt this a little bit in "The Office" - when the workplace isn't a happy workplace, when the workplace is kind of a terrible workplace, you have this push and pull where you're watching a sitcom and you just want all these characters to stay together forever, making jokes, and at the same time, like, you want these characters to succeed. And the show, I think, does a nice job of grappling with - particularly with the character of Amy, you ultimately do not want Amy to continue working at a Cloud 9 for the rest of Amy's life. You want Amy to get what she wants. And I think the show does do a nice job of providing ways for these characters to grow and advance, while at the same time working in an environment that can be oppressive.
YOUNG: I agree with that. And I think - and I'm not as far removed from retail work, as you mentioned, Stephen.
YOUNG: I'm probably just a little bit closer. And I think what this show also does well is nail the uncertainty of forward advancement when it comes to retail work because when you want to get these roles - like, whether it be manager, whether it be store manager, whether it be regional manager, whatever - it's a tight pool of people, and it's all people who want to make more money, who want to advance their position, who want to have better parts in their lives. And I think this show does a very good job of saying, like, this is uncertain; you might not get this job, which is very realistic if you've worked in any big-box store, where it's like, you've done all the hard work, you're a perfectly qualified candidate, and you just don't get picked for it, you know?
And you're right. It puts me in a position where I'm constantly rooting for Amy. As it goes on, I'm like, oh, Amy, you got to get out of here, man; this isn't for you. Like, the mundane interactions that you're having every single day, where every single day is the same - and I think they actually say that early in the series, that every single day is the same when you're working in retail. This show nails that feeling very well.
THOMPSON: Yeah, and it's also one thing I appreciated watching this show is how diverse its cast is and how much it understands that the staff of a big-box store - it does give you an opportunity to really fan out beyond a kind of typical white sitcom cast. But even a show that started five years ago - you're watching the actor Colton Dunn, who plays Garrett, uses a wheelchair on the show, and Colton Dunn does not use a wheelchair in real life. And I think even if this show had started three or four years later, that character would have been cast differently.
And you see the show kind of pivoting and making some of these adjustments. It adds a physically disabled character late in the fifth season. As, I think, relatively progressively cast as this show is, it still has to make adjustments on the fly and does a lot of kind of subtle tweaking of its characters over the course of its run. You know, you see Cheyenne get a little bit smarter. You see Glenn's kind of more polarizing views get really sanded down over the course of the show. You have a storyline in Season 1 where Dina is hitting on Jonah that you would not see today that they kind of dispense with near the end of Season 1. You know, so you see the show kind of adjusting as it goes along.
YOUNG: Yeah. And it made me wonder if that was happening as a result of the show, you know, trying to be progressive, or was it just a natural arc of the characters? Is that just natural character development? Because you're right. I went back and started watching from the beginning - because I watched it when it started, and I think I binge-watched the first season and then watched every episode as it came out after that. So I went back and watched the first season and felt like it was a little jarring how different some of the characters were in terms of from Season 1 to now.
And I think also, if you watch the first season, the show I think was attempting to be a way more earnest and poignant show than it ends up being in later seasons because in later seasons, it's just like, you know what? This is just funny. We're going to have fun, whereas in early seasons, they're having these moments - where Jonah does this thing for Amy, where he puts glow-in-the-dark stars all over the top of the building to show her that there's beauty in some of the little moments. And I remember watching that now and saying, that's not something that they would do in this show today. But early on, I think, when you're thinking that this is a poignant show and this is Jim and Pam, it seems like it's going to be in a different direction, starting off.
THOMPSON: Now, you know, because it's a big-box store, it gives them opportunities to kind of constantly tweak the cast - you know, characters drop in and drop out over the course of the show. But early in Season 6, you have a major, major departure, where America Ferrera - who is the star of the show for the first five seasons - departs the cast entirely. America Ferrera wanted to work on other projects. And I think looking at Season 6 - Season 6 is a very interesting season because it is covering the pandemic, because it is covering the summer of 2020. You know, it's addressing a lot of real-world stuff. But also, it has lost its central character. How do you feel like the show has adjusted in its final season?
YOUNG: We see that she came back for the first two episodes after, you know, COVID happens, and they were able to give her a proper send-off...
YOUNG: ...In the beginning of Season 6. But I feel like I don't necessarily feel a gap as much in watching these episodes because the other characters are very strong, and the subject matter they're tackling in Season 6, it's very effective. So I think they're doing a good enough job of coping without America Ferrera. But I think it probably would still be a more grounded show if she were there.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I do like the way the show has handled COVID, that they were able to kind of pivot quickly. Like, if you were doing a sitcom about a big-box store, the show did a really nice job, I think, of adjusting to the kind of changing landscape of the world that it's covering.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We should be wearing face coverings, avoiding large groups.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Like, say, 50-plus employees and an endless stream of customers?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) That sounds like here.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Yeah, I'll call Zephra. I'm sure they have more guidelines for us. But for now, they want everybody to know that we value our employees' dedication. You are essential and the true heroes during this chaotic time.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Wait. Excuse me. The SVP of company communications, Sandy Sugarman (ph), just called us heroes?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) It's about damn time.
THOMPSON: I've almost wanted to see more COVID. Like, there'll be scenes where characters are talking to each other and not wearing masks, and I'm like, you put your mask on (laughter).
YOUNG: Yeah, I thought they did a very good job of that. I just want to say, I don't think anyone in 2021 would ever say the sentence, I wanted to see more COVID, but...
THOMPSON: Fair point.
YOUNG: But you're absolutely correct. I think there was some scenes - and I watch it. I'm like, they're very deliberate about, when they're on the floor, everybody's wearing a mask.
YOUNG: When they're in the break room, maybe mask guidelines are a little more loose - which I'm like, that's a very realistic way of looking at this, because if you think about people that work together at a Target or at a Walmart or whatever, I could see them in the break room being a little more fast and loose with the rules than they are if they were on the floor and the boss comes by - hey, you got to put a mask on, if the wrong customer comes in. So I think that was a very effective way of making it more realistic.
THOMPSON: Well, we want to know what you think about "Superstore." All of the seasons are available to stream on Peacock. Some episodes are also on Hulu. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Ronald, thanks so much for being here.
YOUNG: Thanks for having me, Stephen.
THOMPSON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We'll see you all right back here tomorrow.
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