Television

Can You Make a Sitcom About COVID? Superstore Is Finding Out.

Jokes about hand sanitizer and anti-maskers come easy. The rest is trickier.

a woman stands at a cash register in a big box store, skeptically holding a surgical mask
Superstore. NBC

Superstore, the long-running NBC show about a group of employees who work at a big-box retail store in St. Louis, had to cut its fifth season short this spring when the coronavirus shut down production. This was awkward, because the finale was supposed to be the show’s big goodbye to Amy Sosa, the character played by America Ferrera, who has been the heart of the show, and one half of its Pam–Jim romantic pairing. Fortunately, the show returns on Thursday night with a COVID-themed season premiere—and Ferrera, who agreed to come back for two episodes so that Amy could get a proper sendoff.

Back in April, Kathryn VanArendonk argued in Vulture that Superstore was “one of the only shows I’m confident will be able to tell stories about this pandemic that capture how it’s reshaped the world.” As an on-the-record believer in Superstore’s ability to deliver comedy about working in the service sector that has an appropriately sharp political edge, I agreed. But it seems like a tall order to write pandemic situation comedy without being too basic—or too sad.

This first episode is a time capsule of pandemic humor. Since it’s meant to catch us up on what’s happened at our Cloud 9 store since the last time we saw one another, the episode starts in March, then goes through the summer. We see the workers realizing in the break room that the pandemic is for real—looking at their phones, seeing the NBA suspended its season, reporting to one another that Tom Hanks “has it.” We get bits about “Happy Birthday” and hand-washing, about social distancing (“Is it 6 feet from the center of our bodies, or from where our bodies end?” asks the sweetly clueless Cheyenne), and throwaway jokes about murder hornets. To the show’s credit, it seems to suspect that all this will look old to October viewers. In June, one employee tries to talk to two co-workers about Tiger King. A co-worker says, “That was, like, early pandemic? I don’t think anyone cares anymore.”

This is the risk any show that tries to incorporate COVID will run. Even the more political parts of the COVID storyline—the fact that the store’s parent company fails to give the workers protective gear, redirecting the supplies to hospitals; the way the peppy exec that Amy encounters on a Zoom call celebrates the store’s earnings spike (“Way to slay!”), then seems to pretend not to hear when she asks for some of that money to be directed toward purchasing PPE—now feel a little dated. The workers strip stuffed animals of their bandanas to make impromptu masks and put alcohol in bottles to make hand sanitizer, prompting jokes about one co-worker’s “fake drunk voice.” They stick toilet paper in the ceiling to hoard it—and you know that ceiling is coming down. These jokes are real, in the sense of being drawn from life, but they’re also played out, having the effect of making the show feel less rather than more current.

Another, more practical, issue for pandemic-era comedies is the mask, which is a problem for human interaction in the real world, but exponentially more so for a form that relies on the expressiveness of the human face. After it becomes clear in the course of the first episode that masks are necessary, the cast wears them in the store when interacting with shoppers but not in the break room, stock room, or offices. There’s a gesture toward the idea that they’ve spaced out the chairs in the loading dock to achieve distance in the new “break room,” but savvy October viewers will know that’s probably not enough to keep a passel of maskless co-workers from infecting one another. Looking at the way the masked actors try valiantly to make the comedy go over with only their eyes and brows in the front-of-house scenes, I can see why the show made this decision, but still: Two raps on the knuckles from Dr. Fauci for that one.

All of this may seem like I found the show’s COVID approach less than promising. But there’s one plotline that I think bodes very well for the future. The two most culturally right-wing characters on the show are Dina (Lauren Ash), a blunt-spoken libertarian who loves power and seizes any chance to exercise it, and Glenn (Mark McKinney), a devout Christian who once allowed a proselytizing preacher to set up a booth in the store. Both of these characters get revealed, over the course of the show’s run, to be fundamentally kind people who love their co-workers, but, to play the internet’s favorite game, it’s conceivable that either or both might have voted for Trump.

Dina and Glenn are, at first, excited by the COVID situation. When a company communication addresses them as “heroes,” they high-five, even as a more cynical co-worker asks, “Are we still heroes if we’re only here because we need to be?” They nudge each other excitedly in the aisles, wondering if they’ll make the local news’ “heroes in your neighborhood” segment, fantasizing about having people bang pots for them. Dina loves imposing the new regulations on shoppers; she barks out orders with gusto, explaining, “Customers are like sheep looking for guidance.”

But the charm of it all disintegrates fast. Just as the two are fantasizing about being celebrated as first responders, a customer pulls his mask down and sneezes right on Glenn. There’s a Karen-ish anti-masker who tells Glenn that he’s “working for Satan.” (He replies, horrified, “That’s the only person I’d never work for!”) “This is all so much fun, I’m not scared,” says Glenn, with a huge dose of faux cheer, in the break room. “Yeah, woo-hoo, I like it!” But he’s clearly terrified. He’s an older man who’s feeling vulnerable, trying to reconcile that feeling with his characteristically intense devotion to his job and his colleagues, and failing.

The episode ends with Dina finding Glenn in the garden section of the store and giving him permission to step away from the floor for a while: “Even us heroes deserve a little break,” she says. It’s a tender moment between characters, showing how they are supporting each other in the middle of a crisis, one that gives me a lot of hope for what Superstore might do with the upcoming season, after they get Amy Sosa packed away to California, the dust settles, and the pandemic wears on. Will the workers make yet another attempt to organize for better pay or treatment? Will customers fall in line with mask-wearing, or will the mask-related fights escalate? Will Glenn lose his enthusiasm for Cloud 9, or double down? It’s COVID in a big-box store—anything is possible.