In the Season 1 finale of NBC’s Superstore, the employees of the fictional big-box chain store Cloud 9 walk out to protest their boss’s termination for offering maternity leave to a 17-year-old employee. Like the Season 1 finale of Mr. Robot — another show about the dehumanizing effects of corporate hegemony — the episode ended on a note of triumph, followed swiftly by uncertainty. And like Mr. Robot, Superstore’s second season premiere*, which airs tonight, begins with the question, “Now what?”
Mr. Robot is a moody, self-serious hour-long drama heavily influenced by what critic Matt Zoller Seitz perceptively coined the “Cinema de Dudebro”; Superstore is a network sitcom. So while the Season 2 premiere of Mr. Robot plunged viewers deeper into the mystery with a new, unfamiliar setting, it’s fitting that Superstore’s new season, which picks up right where the last left off, opens with a silly gag: After ball-busting assistant manager Dina (the hilarious Lauren Ash) informs the employees who walked out that they’ve all been fired, manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) makes a fart noise: “That’s what I think of her!” “Yeah,” Garrett (Colton Dunn) cries. “She’s a fart noise!”
Created by The Office writer Justin Spitzer, Superstore began as your basic workplace comedy, combining clashing personalities, a goofy but well-intentioned boss not unlike Michael Scott, and an aggressively mundane setting. The show is set in St. Louis, Missouri, and the workers at Cloud 9 are realistically diverse, in terms of body type, ethnicity, disability, and age. (Jonah is one of few white men working at the store.) The very first episode set up a will-they, won’t-they, Jim-and-Pam situation, pairing veteran employee Amy (America Ferrera) — who got pregnant at 19 and had to give up her dream of going to college —with newcomer Jonah (Ben Feldman), who arrived at Cloud 9 after flunking out of business school and landing deep in debt.
Superstore improved throughout its first season, revealing more about its characters and sharpening its critique of both soul-crushing retail work and the frustration of working for a company so big, even the manager doesn’t have much control over the store’s operations. The season’s ninth episode “All-Nighter,” was that most beloved of bottle episodes: The locked-in-overnight scenario, which forces characters to huddle together and reveal long-buried secrets. In “All-Nighter,” the employees of Cloud 9 spend the night in the store when the doors — which are controlled by corporate headquarters — automatically lock during an overtime shift.
But a funny thing happens when the workers are stuck together with too much time (and a whole aisle of alcohol) on their hands: Rebellion is fermented. When pressed to come up with one thing about Cloud 9 that he doesn’t like, Glenn, the good corporate soldier, admits, “I guess the aisles are a bit too close together. And sometimes the folks in charge don’t treat me like I’m a human being with feelings.” He goes on to talk about his family’s hardware store, which closed when Cloud 9 bought out the business. The family-run store was a community, Glenn reminisces: “It was paradise.”
In the season finale, titled “Labor,” the Cloud 9 team rallies to figure out a way to cover for Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom), a 17-year-old employee who’s about to have a baby. The company doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, but Jonah pushes Amy to call corporate and ask about the policy. “What’s the worst they can do?”
Jonah and Amy have obvious chemistry in that we-hate-each-other-but-secretly-want-to-bone way (god bless television), but the show never lets us forget that these two have radically different backgrounds, and thus radically different attitudes towards what is and isn’t possible. When the corporate representative tells Amy that they don’t have a paid maternity policy, Jonah pushes her not to give up. So she says, well, we were wondering if you could change that policy. Other companies offer it, Jonah points out, casually mentioning that those companies’ employees are probably unionized.
At the mention of the “u” word, the call snowballs. The representative curtly responds, “I’m transferring you now, please hold.” Suddenly, they’re speaking to Jeremy, vice president of employee relations; then they’re holding for Greg; then they’ve got Rebecca from legal on the line to talk about the “union problem.” “Nobody’s talking about unions,” Amy assures them, “and nobody’s going on strike.” Of course, the “s” word prompts a whole host of new people to clamor on the line, and the call concludes with the promise to send someone down to the store “first thing in the morning.”
Cloud 9 sends a labor relations consultant to diffuse the situation; the episode ends with Cheyenne giving birth in the store (god bless television) and Glenn “suspending” her for six weeks, with pay. Glenn’s act of mercy gets him fired, so Amy decides to stage a walkout after all. The employees triumphantly march out of the store, but Dina immediately bursts their bubble: “Rest assured: Cloud 9 will be fine without you,” she declares.
Mr. Robot may capture the paranoia and anxiety of the current political climate; it positions itself as a populist rallying cry, a call to arms for every poor, disempowered schmuck who works for a company that makes him feel less than human. But compared to Mr. Robot’s cast of merry pranksters, Superstore’s poor schmucks actually seem human. The folks at Cloud 9 aren’t socially awkward yet brilliant coders, or unhappy yet high-earning corporate ice queens; they’re just regular people trying to make a living.
And as it’s pointed out more than once on the show, their jobs don’t require special skills — when they walk out, the company responds with a shrug. When a team of employees from a nearby Cloud 9 branch approaches the picket line in the second season premiere, they think they’re coming to join the struggle — but then the newcomers walk past them and inside the store, and the picketers realize they’re just there to replace them. It’s that easy.
On Mr. Robot, humans often seem like robots themselves — positioned just so in creator/director Sam Esmail’s carefully composed frames, working with mechanical precision to they put their complicated, genius plans in motion. But you don’t have to be particularly smart to be a good person, and you shouldn’t have to be a genius to make a decent living. If Mr. Robot’s precocious humanoids can’t avoid being crushed under the heel of global capitalism, what chance do the employees of Cloud 9 have?
Revolution may not look so romantic on Superstore. But its team of dedicated if bored employees determined to eke out a decent deal with their corporate overlords is appealing because of its banality. Saving the world sounds like a great plan, but paid maternity leave might not be a bad place to start.
Superstore Season 2 premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC.
*Technically the second season premiere was a special that aired during the Olympics in August, but that was basically a stand-alone episode; the action really picks up with tonight’s episode.