This story contains spoilers for the first episode of Superstore’s fifth season.
Unfair labor practices might not seem like obvious fodder for prime-time comedy, but NBC’s Superstore has tangled with the subject often since its 2015 debut. The sitcom, set at a fictional mega-retailer called Cloud 9, ended its last season on a note that felt pointed by the show’s usual standards. Eager to quash worker discussions about unionizing, company executives resorted to a number of extreme options, including contacting immigration authorities. Until that point, the newly promoted store manager, Amy (played by America Ferrera), had been afraid of clashing with corporate. But after a climactic workplace raid by ICE agents, she turned to her boyfriend, an employee named Jonah (Ben Feldman), and asked, “Wanna start a union?”
In its Season 5 premiere, Superstore immediately picks up where the finale left off. The new episode, which aired last week, sees Amy having doubts about store No. 1217’s organizing efforts, but she changes her mind after visiting her co-worker Mateo (Nico Santos), who was detained by ICE for being undocumented and faces deportation to the Philippines. In addition to grappling with immigration and collective bargaining, the premiere also touches on the very real threat that automation poses to many wage workers, both in the U.S. and abroad. Taken together, these story lines suggest that the show may be deepening its engagement with the challenging employment conditions that have shaped the lives of its diverse ensemble from the start.
The show’s focus on labor is notable considering Superstore’s unique position in the current prime-time lineup. Many of the past decade’s sitcoms about middle- and low-income families—such as The Conners, Raising Hope, and The Middle—make home and work life equal parts of their storytelling. Meanwhile, more traditional workplace comedies, such as NewsRadio, Scrubs, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks & Recreation (and even Britain’s The IT Crowd), tend to primarily feature characters in white-collar professions. Revolving as it does around the lives of hourly retail employees, Superstore takes place in a setting that many viewers have likely experienced at some point, or still do.
Throughout its run, the show has usually framed the economic, social, and political problems that employees might face, whether layoffs or inadequate health care, as individual-level difficulties. Ferrera, who also serves as a producer, has insisted Superstore isn’t an “issues show.” The creator and showrunner Justin Spitzer previously wrote for The Office, and that sitcom’s particular style—using a strong ensemble to parse modern-day concerns in lighthearted fashion—has shaped each season of Superstore. “We know if there’s an issue in the world, we’re going to be dealing with that issue,” Spitzer told Vox. “But we’re really just looking at it in terms of how our characters would react to it or if there’s a comedy attitude somebody would have.”
That story-first ethos doesn’t mean the show has been afraid of critiquing, implicitly or otherwise, the conditions that can make it hard for people in hourly jobs to earn a stable living. Superstore has regularly mocked various damaging policies put in place by Cloud 9 management. Several moments in the fourth season, in particular, hinged on company profits mattering more than personnel. In one episode, Amy tipsily jested about corporate’s stinginess to two executives, saying they could save money by not offering full-timers benefits if they reclassify such employees as two part-timers. It’s a preposterous suggestion—hence the joke—but the executives excitedly summon “Tracy from legal” to see about implementing it. In the world of Superstore, a consistent punch line is corporate’s laser-eyed focus on the bottom line.
As Superstore’s primary antagonist, corporate has a long record of making decisions that push the workers of store No. 1217 to stand up for themselves, or for one another. In Season 1, employees went on strike to protest the firing of the store’s original manager, Glenn (Mark McKinney). (Glenn had suspended a pregnant employee for six weeks with pay as a workaround to Cloud 9’s nonexistent maternity leave.) Employees from other Cloud 9 locations arrived to replace the strikers, all but forcing the latter to return to their posts. Specific mentions of unions mostly died down until Season 4, although every plot point about hours being cut or the prospect of a $15 minimum wage has continued to highlight how vulnerable Cloud 9’s floor workers are in the face of a powerful corporate monolith.
Superstore doesn’t usually linger on weightier issues, preferring instead to address them and move on in service of comedy. But at the end of Season 4—and now in Season 5—the show seems to be strengthening its approach to trickier, potentially polarizing topics while still staying true to its characters. Though corporate’s greed is nothing new, the executives’ decision to call ICE is depicted as particularly coldblooded. Mateo’s departure in the wake of that raid—he’s shown sitting behind the caged windows of a Homeland Security van, arms restrained in a plastic zip tie—made for a sobering moment on the usually vociferous show. Weaving this immigration story line into the existing union narrative is a relatively complicated storytelling move for Superstore; it suggests that the show could start approaching so-called issues on a more systemic level.
Early in the Season 5 premiere, Amy seems to have lost some of the defiance she showed in the Season 4 finale. She encourages Jonah to scale back on union activities. “Corporate is checking in every day. They are super paranoid,” Amy tells him. But her visit to see Mateo in a local ICE detention center changes her mind. “It’s cold and there aren’t enough blankets,” Mateo says, his tone deflated. “The guards think all undocumented people are Latinos, so they just keep yelling at me in Spanish and I don’t understand what they’re saying.” No matter a viewer’s stance on U.S. immigration policy, the moment is a tragic one that complicates and personalizes the subject via a fan-favorite character.
Indeed, Superstore’s ever-growing ensemble is one of its biggest strengths. Over time, the show has steadily built complexity into what could seem, at the outset, like stereotypical characters: a conservative, religious white man; a gay, undocumented immigrant from the Philippines; a teenage mother; and a Syrian refugee, to name just a few. Another of the show’s assets is how it has managed to comment on labor issues without moralizing. As recently as May, Spitzer maintained that the show is “not trying to say why things are bad or say how to fix them.” But Season 4 also marked Spitzer’s last as showrunner. Now Superstore is in the hands of the executive producers Jonathan Green and Gabe Miller, who could potentially nudge the show in new, more challenging directions.
As if the immigration and union story lines weren’t enough, the Season 5 premiere introduces another threat to employees: automation. In an attempt to modernize its business, corporate sends Store No. 1217 a new “high-tech floor cleaner.” The robot excites most of the workers at first, but Jonah sees the machine for what it is—their future replacement. “It was nice of corporate to wait an entire week before they reminded us we’re just as replaceable as Mateo,” he sarcastically remarks. His anxiety quickly spreads to the others. “How can we compete with a machine that doesn’t get tired or ask for health care or a raise?” Jonah later asks a small group gathered in the break room. The answer slowly dawns on the workers, but Sayid (Amir M. Korangy), a refugee from Syria, says it first: “It’s the perfect employee.”
What’s left unsaid is that a store full of “perfect employees” is also one without Sayid and Mateo and Amy and Jonah and Glenn—characters whom viewers have come to care about and who aren’t, no matter what corporate says, quite so expendable.