If you’re employing the traditional, critical definition of “good,” Superstore is not a good TV show. The NBC sitcom, which premieres this week after a teaser aired late last year, is not especially innovative (it’s The Office, essentially, only set in a Walmart-esque big-box store). It is not especially subtle. It is not especially deep, or empowering, or ambiguous, or empathetic, or generous, or quirky, or any other of the traits that might, in combination, merit discussion of it in optimistically literary terms. On the contrary: Superstore’s characters rely pretty heavily on stereotype; its ratio of landed to non-landed jokes is pretty average; its tone vacillates in a way that suggests that its creators and writers are still figuring out what their show is going, and trying, to be. Its ambition, on the whole, seems limited to the typical stuff of pleasant primetime sitcom-ery.
And yet! Superstore is delightful! Good, even, in its way! The show is, despite and very much because of its shortcomings, extremely successful as a piece of pop-cultural confectionery. It gets some nice one-liners in (“He looks like a panda and a Disney princess had a baby”). It has some sweet, sweeping story lines (new employee Jonah, trying to rectify floor-manager Amy’s complaint that the store makes “today just like yesterday,” covers the store’s ceiling in glow-in-the-dark stars). It has a pleasing dose of wackiness (the team members playing shopping-cart polo!). It has America Ferrera, which is an objective win for any TV show. Its cast, and just as importantly its characters, are diverse, at least in relation to what sitcoms have traditionally offered.
And also: It’s fun! It’s fine! It asks just enough of its audience, which is to say not very much at all. Superstore is Applebee’s and McDonald’s and Starbucks rendered as audio-visual entertainment: It is comforting and nourishing and unsurprising and, above all, supremely confident in its own tasty mediocrity. It’s about Walmart; in some sense, it also is Walmart.
And: Thank goodness for that. We live, critics are fond of reminding us, in the Golden Age of Television. The age of The Wire and Breaking Bad and Orange Is the New Black and Sherlock and Master of None and Making a Murderer and the approximately 5,342 other recent shows that have elevated TV as a medium of literature and artistry. And sitcoms, traditionally the boobiest denizens of the boob tube, have gotten their own sprinkling of gold dust in all that. A lot of them, these days, are really good, in both the critical and the basic senses. Jane the Virgin is a subtle, heartfelt ode to the telenovela. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a media satire as much as it is a sitcom. Black-ish and Modern Family and Fresh off the Boat are as interested in sociology as they are entertainment, so much so that they announce their concerns in their titles.
Which is all pretty fantastic. Smart TV makes for smart audiences, and vice versa. The only problem, though, is that sometimes viewers, curling up on the couch after a long day of working and/or school-going and/or kid-raising and/or life-living, don’t want something smart. Sometimes you don’t want literature. Sometimes you just want something that’s funny, and entertaining, and thoughtless, and above all easy. Sometimes you just want a sitcom that takes the core premise of the situational comedy—wacky characters, placed into wacky situations—and runs with it. Sometimes you just want something basic. Sometimes you just want Walmart.
And that, in every sense, is what Superstore offers. The show is about a mishmash of employees in a big-box store—nothing less, and really not much more. Plot lines include a wedding-stuff sale that coincides with a proposal to a (pregnant, teenage) employee. And the store’s Michael Scott-esque manager going out of his way to show his okay-ness with the gay couple who attend that sale. And the store becoming the subject of a trade magazine profile. The scope of all these shenanigans is small, reassuringly so. The characters, and stories, are self-referential.
Superstore, for all of its shortcomings, offers that most comforting of things: a tidily contained universe.
In that, the show is somewhat—in Susan Sontag’s definition—campy. It has a whiff (Deborah Solomon’s) of “bad art.” More than anything else, though, it is, like so many other sitcoms both recently premiered and long-running, from The Grinder to Grandfathered to New Girl to The Big Bang Theory … simply fine. In that good way! Superstore glories in its own mediocrity. Its stakes are wonderfully low. And that, these days, is its own kind of value. The Golden Age of Television is also, not at all coincidentally, the Internet Age—an age that has, on top of everything else, made cultural criticism both extremely commonplace and especially fervent. As a result, even TV-viewing—formerly that most passive of activities—has become inflected with the web’s “hot takes” and “outrage culture” and the general opinion industrial complex. Couch-potato-ing has become, almost by default, interactive. Which is wonderful, and liberating, and democratizing, but also occasionally exhausting.
Superstore, and the precious few sitcoms that share its concise ambitions, offer a nice antidote to all that. They’re a throwback to what television used to be before everything got so interactive: small, easy, and gloriously two-dimensional.
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