Television

The TV Club, 2018

Entry 6: Superstore, Lodge 49, and the discontents of capitalism.

A still from Superstore.
Superstore.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Adam Rose/NBC.

My fellow godless acolytes of the great beast Television,

Willa, thank you for giving me a chance to evangelize for Superstore and Lodge 49, two shows that seemingly have nothing in common but, also, everything in common. (And as someone who never read the Ferrante books, yes, I seem to be enjoying the TV series much more than many of my friends who know how to read.)

Superstore is one of those shows where my love for it seems to perplex a lot of other critics, but where every time I write about it, I get a flood of emails from people who say, “Thank you for writing about this show!” It is, on one level, a very competent gloss on The Office set in a big-box department store, to the degree that its central romance essentially redoes the beats of Jim and Pam note for note. On another level—the level that it has in common with Lodge 49—it’s a show about trying to carve out a meaningful life in a world built atop an economic system that doesn’t give a shit about human beings.

It also has a deep bench of supporting players, some amazing break room scenes that let them all bounce off of each other, and an aesthetic that frequently pauses the action for four- or five-second vignettes of the store’s customers making weird little messes the employees will have to clean up later. At their best, these vignettes tell tiny stories within the larger story, and they speak, I think, to what makes the show so good: It treats every story as a nesting doll for some larger story of a broken system that we’re nonetheless meant to live in. (If that makes it sound too grueling, I assure you it’s not. This thing is gonna be great comfort food for rainy afternoons once it gets a few more seasons under its belt.)

What’s more, Superstore is able to pivot successfully between stories that function as tiny political position papers and more poignant stories about the lives the characters have put on hold to work at Cloud 9. It’s a show that produced two of my favorite episodes of the year, which sound so different that you might be surprised they come from the same show. The first is a broad farce built around a Golden Globes party thrown by protagonist Amy (America Ferrera) to prove that she is doing just fine in the wake of her separation from her husband, and it’s a comedy built out of escalating mishaps that wouldn’t have been out of place on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The second, which aired in November, involves the birth of Amy’s baby, conceived with her ex-husband, right alongside the birth of another baby, carried by Dina (Lauren Ash), who is serving as a surrogate for store manager Glenn (Mark McKinney, whose goofy Muppet voice is the primary impediment to enjoying the show, and yet I love how the series refuses to ditch it). Amy, through a series of twists, discovers she no longer has employee insurance and is forced to deliver her child at a free clinic; Dina, utilizing Glenn’s much better insurance, has a lovely time at a big, comfy hospital.

This story isn’t rocket science by any means, and Superstore is never going to have the characters turn to camera and say, “The solution is to tear down the bars of capitalism that hold us all in place.” But Superstore also isn’t afraid to say that a situation that allows two mothers to give birth in drastically different circumstances is horribly broken and only getting worse. It’s a show tapped in to the way that most Americans with working-class jobs actually work nowadays (in retail), and it’s also surprisingly deft at talking about class interests amid the will-they/won’t-they romantic tensions (which the show handles so beautifully!) and wacky schemes. It has dud episodes here and there, as any 22-episodes-a-season sitcom will, but it’s the kind of series where even the ample amounts of product placement serve an artistic purpose.

Lodge 49, meanwhile, gets at some of these same ideas via the kind of drama that would have made a “brilliant but canceled” list back in 2011. It feels, almost deliberately, like a throwback to that era—which I shouldn’t really be nostalgic for, but here we are. It’s also part of a minitrend in the year’s best dramas, in which men try to grapple with the limitations of hypermasculine codes before their lives utterly lose meaning and/or they die. (See also: The Terror, for a much bleaker take on this theme.)

But what’s notable about Lodge 49 is the way it situates these ideas in a milieu that’s distinctly post-recession. The main character, Dud (Wyatt Russell), and his sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy), have both had their lives and aspirations ruined by the financial desperation that struck their now-dead father in the wake of the financial crash, while the other characters, particularly Ernie (a member of the Lodge in the title, played by Brent Jennings), find themselves working in an economy that exists primarily to build ever-more-opulent shrines to the wealthy.

A frequent refrain of the series is that there has to be a better way to live—Dud mutters this to himself while bumming around a doughnut shop in the pilot, and it later turns up on a billboard—and Lodge 49 manages, somehow, to thread the needle of being genuinely nostalgic for the more communitarian America of the ’40s and ’50s without ignoring that to build a more communitarian America in 2018 is going to require being more open to women, people of color, and those who aren’t straight. It’s a less overtly political series than Superstore but one fascinated by the intricacies of a world that suggests the greatest purpose one could have is making more money and having more stuff, while insisting that only a couple of people can succeed at this pursuit. It is as full of existential malaise as Mad Men while also understanding the only way out of that trap is together.

This is a theme that also animates Pose, which grew stronger and stronger for me as it went along. (The sixth episode is a dynamite hour that stands alone perfectly well if you’re looking to sample another installment, Willa.) I have wondered a lot this past year whether our propensity for antihero dramas in some ways presaged the era we now live in, but watching something like Pose, which is a warm and fizzy tribute to the idea that the families we find are as important, if not more important, than the ones we’re born into, as well as a necessary corrective to stories about a ’80s family values, makes me wonder if our pop culture is now predicting an age of community investment, of commiseration, of just generally giving a shit about somebody other than yourself.

I mean maybe! I could be grasping at straws here, but this theme comes up again and again and again in the best TV shows of the late 2010s, even something like The Americans. All of these shows are more obviously flawed than the austere perfection of The Sopranos (what wouldn’t be?), but they’re flawed because they want not just to wear their hearts on their sleeves, but to wear their hearts as their entire shirts. I can forgive the clumsy Trump stuff in Pose (where the president is a never-seen off-screen character like Maris on Frasier, and now I want every character to have wilder and wilder descriptions of him, until he seems like some strange, hideous beast, and it’s time to end this parenthetical) when so much else in the show is so rich.

Superstore, Lodge 49, Pose: They’re all about the possibility that opens up inside of yourself when you let the rest of the world in. It spoke to me in 2018, maybe because I’m being naïve. I hope not!

The Good Place is, of course, also about this, which means it’s more than time for me to join Willa in asking Sonia to defend this still-very-good-but-slightly-off season of the show. Consider that collection of adjectives my own Molotov cocktail thrown into the middle of the floor.

Bortles!
Todd

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