That Championship Season — Superstore, Season 3

There are plenty of workplace sitcoms across the history of television. A remarkable number of them don’t both to really deal with work. The assemblage of people with disparate personalities, unified by obligation only, is a handy way to generate comic conflict, so the form persists. The actual jobs being done are often an afterthought. There aren’t all that many episodes of The Office that hinge on the sale of paper (interestingly, one of the best episodes does). One of the strengths of Superstore is that the deadening grind of employment in a big box store is embedded deeply in its narrative. Even as the series leans on several well-worn sitcom conventions — the slow-build romance between two principals, characters with traits that would be off-putting in real life but come across as endearing is the comfort of fiction — there’s always a sense that these people are there to do a job, one that asks for too much and pays too little, keeping them bound to the chore of making money for a corporation that’s, at best, indifferent to their needs.

Superstore had a strong, focused perspective from the very beginning. In the show’s third season, the last one with series creator Justin Spitzer serving as showrunner, that sturdy outlook was further bolstered by a set of characters that were so well developed by that point that premises crackled to life. An attempted robbery in the store could set into motion a whole episode of shifting dynamics based not on high drama but instead the logical reactions of the different characters. Introducing new figures into the familial cohort of coworkers is enough to set the right sort of anxious spinning into play. The comedy comes from what’s been previously established, doing so without relying on archetypes or complicated callbacks. The comedy is equal parts authentic and earned.

A good part of that authenticity comes from a willingness to let the characters change. The shifts of fortune derive from recognizable progress of life rather than writers’ room contrivances. Relationships evolve and needs transform, all the while individuals come to greater understanding of themselves and others. Amy Sosa (America Ferrera), the show’s lead character, starts the season in the midst of a divorce and spends much of the year make fitfully successful gestures to prove that she’s doing well with the change. Others try to climb out of unsatisfying situations only to slide back after every bit of meager progress. They grow without breaking free of circumstances, just as the capitalistic system intends.

Most sitcoms rely on a certain amount of stasis, and Superstore achieves that by showing how the company that runs the department story chain Cloud 9 keeps employees in a state of complacent desperation. The job is lousy, and no one can afford to lose it. At the start of the season, the store is reopening after a long layoff after the building took damage during a tornado, depicted in the second season’s finale. Many of the season’s episodes include consideration of the troubles endured by workers whose wages are tamped down to the bare minimum: abusive customers, lousy health insurance, being driven to overwork to earn tepid perks, and the constantly looming danger that a poorly chosen statement at the wrong time can lead to termination. Spitzer and his team wring wry humor out of bleak truths, positioning the battle-tested camaraderie of the Cloud 9 coworkers as the closest thing any of them has to a lifeboat. They look out for one another because there’s no other reasonable choice.

It’s a tricky tonal balance at play, and the cast is instrumental to making it work. Ferrera is marvelous, part stabling force and part victim of her own anxious imbalance. The other most notable performances — especially those by Mark McKinney, Lauren Ash, Nichole Bloom, and Kaliko Kauahi — are allowed more exaggeration by design, but they work because they’re grounded in humanity. No matter the antics, Superstore never loses sight of the fact that these are people who need to get up and put on a name tag practically every day, wearing themselves out in the face of unkind patrons in pursuit of the almighty dollar. By the season’s final episode, peppered with clockwork-efficiency payoffs of earlier plot points, the pronounced empathy of the series makes it seem as though the travails have been lived alongside the characters. We’ve all punched the clock together.

Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The LeftoversSeason Three
TremeSeason One
How I Met Your MotherSeason Two
FireflySeason One
Raising HopeSeason Three
Jessica JonesSeason One
WKRP in CincinnatiSeason One
VeepSeason Five
Freaks and GeeksSeason One
LegionSeason One

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