On its face, Superstore is a show about the rights of retail workers, laborers people sometimes overlook or abuse. A disgruntled cast of employees struggle with daily events in a Walmart-style box store named Cloud9, with plenty of interstitial weird scenes from customers (think, a melting carton of ice cream in an aisle of kitchen appliances, which the show revisits throughout the episode as it slowly melts).
Created by Justin Spitzer, whose pedigree includes Scrubs and The Office, Superstore has a comedy pedigree to be proud of. The writing walks a line between heartfelt and funny, mean and realistic. The cast is stacked, with America Ferrera both starring and producing, and Ben Feldman (who you might remember as the guy who cut his nipple off on Mad Men) acting alongside her as co-star. Other notable cast members are Lauren Ash (playing the weird, gruff Dina), Colton Dunn (Garrett), Nico Santos (Mateo), Nicole Bloom (Cheyenne), and Mark Mckinney (as the overtly religious Glenn). Mark Mckinney, a true comedy treasure, is a particular gem among the cast, as he balances the role of store-father and boss well. With this ensemble, the show is bound to be funny, but it’s also full of such heart that it deserves a more critical eye.
(Spoilers for seasons 1-4 of Superstore to follow)
While seasons 1-3 did good work, they mostly focused on the maybe-they-will, maybe-they-won’t relationship between Amy (who begins the series in a quickly failing marriage) and Jonah (who’s new to the store, and an NPR-type). Superstore has always dealt with big issues. For example, the idea of organizing a labor union--and corporate’s brutal efforts to squash it--has existed since season one, when Cheyenne gave birth in-store, then was denied maternity leave. Later episodes focus on Cloud9 corporate’s fear of unions and their direct efforts to stop them before they start. But labor unions, while important, do not have the same immediate consequences as, say, going to jail or being detained against your will. By the time immigration becomes a major plot point in season 4, the importance of labor unions has already been established in previous seasons, as workers rally for better healthcare, better wages, and better hours. There are big issues from the very beginning in Superstore, but season four makes the particularly ballsy move of ending with a beloved character being hauled off by ICE.
Mateo discovers early in the show that he’s an illegal immigrant after someone tells him that the “green card store” he went to with his grandmother doesn’t really exist. Brought to America as a child ( and forced to watch helplessly as his twin died by drowning--a fact that is never really explained and left as a sort of mysterious event in Mateo’s life), Mateo has never known life in his native country of the Philippines. He wouldn’t know how to live there, and wouldn’t be as safe or happy as he would in America--a fact made apparent in an episode where Mateo tries to seek political asylum by creating an anti-Duterte club. Mateo isn’t documented, but he also isn’t really fit to go back to the Philippines, so what should happen to him?
In an interview, Justin Spitzer confessed that Mateo’s confrontation with ICE was always an option for writers, but that they ultimately decided to use it as an act of misdirection. Typically, viewers might think that Mateo could escape through sitcom-style hijinks (and he almost does), but just as in real life, ICE is a real threat to many people. Mateo can’t escape because there are simply too many forces against him. The reality of ICE and immigrants in America is a fraught, overwhelming topic, and Superstore tackles it deftly, showing that perhaps one solution to adversity is standing together against hatred. The season ends with the staff (including Amy, the manager) deciding to form a union an organize help for Mateo, wherever it is he might be going.
We can’t ignore that the end of season 4 came at a difficult time in American history, politically. Real-life detention centers have popped up all along the southern border of the US and many families have been separated as a result. These real events only serve as larger context for Superstore, and the show helps build empathy in its viewers by taking a broad news item (families are being split apart and separated at the border) into a specific event (Mateo has been taken away by ICE). By focusing all of the viewer’s care and concern into one character’s startling arc, viewers can better contextualize and understand what’s happening in the world. Of course, the show is also making a statement on the nuance of immigration and the complexity of individual circumstance. Mateo is not a rapist, or a thief, or a murderer. He’s just a person who was brought to America by a family who wanted a better life for him. He grew up in America, he’s worked in America, and made a life for himself here. It’s hard for the viewer to fault him for that.
Superstore is a comedy first and foremost, a reliable 22 minute adventure in the world of retail that is always funny, and often heartwarming (I can’t count the amount of times that Glenn has done something incredibly sweet for his employees). It’s also a show that’s not afraid to discuss tough issues like unions and immigration, or ableism (Garrett uses a wheelchair and one episode involves the staff trying to determine why he’s in a wheelchair), or religion (Glenn attempts to let his megachurch pastor preach inside the store several times), but it also shows that there’s good in the world. The staff of Cloud9, no matter how many messes they get themselves into or how silly some of them seem, genuinely care about each other and will rally together to help one of their own.
I’m eager to see how the writers of Superstore confront Mateo’s potential deportation next season, along with all the other characters I’ve come to love.
Superstore returns September 26 on NBC.