Television

Superstore Is the Only Show That Gets What It’s Like to Be Working Class in America

From union busting to ICE raids, the NBC sitcom has tackled a wide range of workplace realities.

America Ferrara and Ben Feldman in Superstore.
America Ferrara and Ben Feldman in Superstore.
NBCUniversal Media

The NBC series Superstore starts its fifth season this week, and you should be watching it. This good-hearted workplace comedy about a big-box store in St. Louis is the only contemporary sitcom about American workers that threads class consciousness—the persistent low-level conflict between management and staff, the human impact of low pay and bad health insurance, the befuddling effect of managerial tactics that thwart workers’ solidarity—through every episode, without being too didactic about it. More than once, while watching an episode, I’ve had to pinch myself, shocked that we have a network show that talks about inequality so openly. Superstore’s radicalism, it seems, has been hiding in plain sight.

A lot of Superstore’s comedy has that familiar Kurt Vonnegut feel—a wry, ironic tone familiar to watchers of other workplace comedies, including The Office, where creator Justin Spitzer was a writer and producer. An organization led by fools makes irrational, penny-pinching decisions, and workers suffer the fallout with whatever humor they can muster. In Season 1’s “All-Nighter,” the whole staff has to stay late to replace signage, even though the new signs are almost identical to the old ones. After canceling their plans and hastily arranging for backup child care, workers get locked into the dark store and are unable to leave, because corporate controls the locks and lights. In another “lock-in” episode in Season 4, “Blizzard,” the staff gets stuck overnight after corporate refuses to let them leave early to beat an incoming blizzard.

Comedy ensues in each case, because these people are all flirting with one another and making up games and having heart-to-hearts. But Superstore never lets you forget about the underlying injustice. In Season 3’s “Lottery,” the clueless-but-kind store manager, Glenn (Mark McKinney), presents a training session on personal budgeting crafted by the store’s corporate parent, Cloud 9. On a whiteboard, he outlines a sample budget for a minimum wage worker; the numbers add up, but the budget includes no line items for child care, food, or medical care. Pressed on how to get around these basic needs, Glenn gives staff Cloud 9’s official advice: apply for government support.

Superstore is about service workers, and its stories often revolve around the problems of working-class women. (It’s decidedly not a show about the fictionalized American working class, better known as “hard-hat Trump voters who the New York Times finds in a diner.”) In Season 4’s “Maternity Leave,” Amy (America Ferrara), who has worked at the store for 15 years and has just had a baby, thinks she has a brief period of paid time off coming to her. She finds out only after she gives birth—she’s holding the baby, exhausted, in a half-unpacked nursery, when she gets the call—that because she has been recently suspended from her job, she doesn’t qualify. She has to come back to work, or she’ll lose her job.

America Ferrara had a baby around the same time as her character, and when Amy drags herself into the store, two days postpartum, the actress conveys that sense of bone-deep exhaustion perfectly. Amy suffers through the indignity of pumping in a utility closet, and limps through the motions of her job, but finally explodes when Glenn presents her with a tone-deaf “pick-me-up” gift—a package of bath bombs. Amy yells: “I have slept 90 minutes in three days. The lining of my uterus is coming out in clumps. I have hemorrhoids so big that my doctor looked at my [bleep] and said ‘Whoa!’ ” Glenn, true to his nature, is horrified and gets her an equally clueless make-up gift: a puppy.

The problems of insufficient health care are a recurring theme on Superstore. In Season 3’s “Health Fund,” everyone on staff is sick, but no one can go to the doctor, because their health plan has a $4,000 deductible. In the break room, the workers take turns recommending home remedies, like pouring root beer in your ear to fix an ear infection. Jonah (Ben Feldman) starts a “health fund,” and they all sign up to make monthly contributions to a mutual pot. Excited to finally be able to tend to all their nagging health problems, the staff collectively draws $37,000 from the fledgling fund in the first four hours of its existence. The failure of the fund shows the limits of Jonah’s perennial idealism but also the financial impact of continually delaying routine preventive care.

True to its covertly acerbic nature, the show doesn’t let you forget that some people have it better. In Season 4’s “Delivery Day,” Dina (Lauren Ash), a manager, and Amy, a staffer, go into labor at the same time. They are, at first, put in adjoining single rooms in the same hospital. Then Amy realizes that her insurance won’t come close to covering the fancy place, and she moves to a free clinic with dingy sheets, a doctor who’s extremely long in the tooth, and an elderly roommate who appears to be dead. “I want to be in the hospital where only rich white people go,” Amy wails. “I want to feel uncomfortable that I’m the only brown person there.” Meanwhile, back at the brightly lit rich-white-person hospital, Dina enjoys a C-section attended by many handsome doctors.

Part of the realism of these situations comes from the fact that the “haves” in the workplace—the managers—are quite often oblivious to the difference between their lot and their staff’s. Glenn, a vocal Christian, and Dina, a power-hungry oddball with a serious hard-on for security cameras, do soften somewhat in relationship with the workers. At the end of Season 4, Dina tries to help the undocumented worker Mateo (Nico Santos) escape from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid, which is not something she would have done back in Season 2 when she was unapologetically scabbing and spraying the picket line with a hose during a strike. But character development aside, the managers are still fundamentally different from the workers. When Glenn steps down as manager and realizes what a pay cut he’ll take, and then Amy lands the manager job and is floored by how much money she’ll be making, it feels a bit improbable, but it’s also astute commentary on the way that opacity about salaries aids and abets inequality.

The show makes sure that you know this lack of transparency about workers’ true situations doesn’t happen by accident. In the Season 1 episode “Labor,” when Jonah and Amy call corporate to ask about getting paid maternity leave for the teenage mother Cheyenne, they happen to mention that companies with unions provide leave, and Amy makes an offhand comment: “Nobody is planning to go on strike.” Immediately, a legion of worried managers and lawyers, triggered by the merest hint of a union drive, hop on the line. Corporate sends slippery Steve, a “labor relations consultant,” to talk to the staff the next day. Steve says Cloud 9 is “not anti-union” but repeats anti-union shibboleths like, “Unions are great for people whose companies don’t listen to them,” and “Cloud 9 is devoted to supporting the welfare and values of all of its workers.” The staff knows he’s bullshit, but they don’t quite know what to do next.

The Season 2 strike storyline showcases the powerlessness that workers often feel when they’ve been discouraged from organizing. After management fires Glenn for giving Cheyenne an ad hoc “maternity leave” in the form of a paid suspension, the staff walks out, led by Amy and Jonah. Management condescends to the pair, telling them they are “in over their heads”—but the truth is that they are! Nobody involved on the workers’ side knows what a realistic demand might be. When the staff meets to try to decide what they want from the strike, some propose valid, if ambitious, goals, like better health insurance or overtime pay, but some say they want the right to vape in the store, or for the store to be closer to their houses. Mateo, ever the striver, can’t decide whether to commit to the strike and runs in and out of the store to fake that he’s working. After the company calls in scabs from a nearby store, the workers cave one by one, fearing losing their jobs.

But perhaps the most radical indictment of the managerial class comes in the show’s portrayal of Cloud 9’s corporate overlords. In Season 4’s “Managers’ Conference,” Amy and Jonah take Glenn’s ticket to Cloud 9’s annual management summit, figuring at least they’ll get to stay in a hotel room for free. Passing themselves off as managers at the conference’s opening night party, the two debate whether the room is full of “D-bags.” “These are the kind of people who come here every year, eat a half a million dollars’ worth of shrimp cocktail, and then they tell us they can’t afford maternity leave,” Amy scoffs. She proves it to Jonah by starting up conversations with fellow attendees, mocking the idea of a $15 minimum wage and denigrating floor workers, to see how far they’ll go when they think they’re alone with fellow white-collar employees. The answer turns out to be “pretty far”—Amy gets a pair of managers to agree with her suggestion that they should “let us kill one of those entitled brats each year, just to keep us sane.”

Eventually, a tipsy Amy and Jonah figure out that the room is full of people giving out swag—free iPads, wine openers, expensive down jackets, aromatherapy diffusers—which they happily take. Money and privilege are tempting, and the stage is set for a conflict between workers and management in Season 5. In the last 10 minutes of Season 4, Homeland Security officers drove Mateo away in a van as his co-workers looked on. This long-delayed reckoning—Mateo’s immigration status had been a driving force of the show’s plot since Season 1—comes to pass after corporate bigwigs in a conference room decide to call ICE to raid the store, hoping to intimidate workers who have been talking about forming a union. Amy, now a well-paid store manager, must decide where her allegiances lie. Is this the season that Superstore’s workers finally stand up? Watch, and see!