“Superstore” tackles workplace comedy with an eye

NBC’s promising new comedy focuses on Amy and Jonah, two young workers at a discount mega-store in Middle America

“Superstore,” an upcoming NBC comedy that is airing a sneak peek of its pilot tonight, aims to do something quite difficult: to make the answer to the question “What is it like to work at Wal-Mart?” into a punch line. It’s an inherently political question, one that cuts through both the corporate greed of the megacorporation and the elitism of those who never have to consider taking a (part-time, minimum-wage) job at Wal-Mart in order to make ends meet. And it’s a far sharper question than NBC has been in the habit of making, as the network has struggled to find even the niche success that “Parks and Recreation” and “Community” had before they left the network.

Indeed, what “Superstore” reminds the viewer of most is “The Office,” right from the pilot episode. (Showrunner Justin Spitzer worked on “The Office.”) “Superstore” doesn’t have an analogue to the desperate and narcissistic Michael Scott (Steve Carell), who was the key to “The Office’s” overall brilliance. But it does have a sense of bleak desperation about work—about capitalism, really—and what making ends meet does to people’s souls; it’s a story that has both been told many times and is perennially relevant. St. Louis isn’t Scranton—and from the four episodes I watched, “Superstore” does not seem as committed to the grim void that has replaced the American dream as early episodes of “The Office” were—but the debut sitcom is leaning in the right direction. “Superstore” is a little sleeker and brighter than Dunder-Mifflin, but that makes sense; the fluorescent lights of the megastore make warehouses into cavernous bright mini-communities, where unsightly truths are bleached out of sight. The office of “The Office” wore its considerable flaws on its dirty, well-worn sleeve.

“Superstore” follows the employees of Cloud 9, a store that is so indistinguishable from Wal-Mart that it is, functionally, Wal-Mart. The show costumes the employees with those signature blue vests and striped nametags. A few slight changes here and there keep the lawyers at bay, but this is not the red-and-white, marginally upscale world of Target, or the assemblage-and-meatballs world of IKEA. There are rifles and $8 engagement rings for sale on different ends of the building, in uniquely American fashion; a pregnant 17-year-old employee struggles to stack boxes in a mid-aisle display. This is the combination of ignored exurban America and an insatiable desire for things; the confluence of poor social services, low quality of life and minimum wage. This is Wal-Mart.

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