It’s hard to deny that we live in a golden age of television. From complex anti-heroes on Breaking Bad and The Wire to razor-sharp satires such as Jane the Virgin and Unbreakable Kimberly Schmidt, television has become far more than mere entertainment. The plots, themes and characters have become as complex and nuanced as those in classic literature. Don Draper is essentially a 1960s take on the mysterious Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, while many animated sitcoms (most notably The Simpsons, which still manages to strike a nerve on occasion) are becoming as sly as the writing of Mark Twain. These shows are designed to shed light on societal constraints as well as critique modern day culture, which is the true purpose of a classic novel.
Now Superstore, one of NBC’s newest sitcoms, doesn’t appear that complex on the surface. The show takes place in a Cloud 9, Superstore‘s big-box store version of Wal-Mart (their uniforms even parallel Wal-Mart employees) where a ragtag team of employees deal with the daily struggle of working in retail as well as their own personal lives. The first few episodes of the show are light and fluffy; we meet Jonah (Ben Feldman), an overeducated employee who develops a crush on Amy (the always welcome America Ferrera), Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom) a pregnant teenager with an insufferable boyfriend, Dina (Lauren Ash) who takes her job way too seriously and Glenn (Mark McKinney), their boss who comes across as a very Christian Michael Scott. There are playful lines thrown in each episode (one employee describes Jonah as though “a panda and a Disney princess had a baby”) and there are great sight gags with the customers (one customer unabashedly uses one of the floor model toilets).
Although the series never loses its goofy humor, it does become more pointed in its criticism of big-box stores. In the third episode, “Shots and Salsa,” Glenn tasks the only other Hispanic employee (besides Amy) with managing the salsa tasting booth. In order to sell more salsa, she decides to put on an exaggerated Spanish accent, which infuriates Amy. The episode makes a pointed statement about the use of stereotypes to sell products, and the demeaning behavior big-box employees often have to engage in.
But the later episodes is where the series full-on attacks the policies of big-box stores. In the last episode, “Labor,” Cheyenne goes into labor. After she has her child, Jonah is shocked to learn that she will not be taking any time off work because Cloud 9 doesn’t offer maternity leave. Jonah calls corporate to ask why there is no maternity leave, only to have a union buster come to the store who reveals that a.) Cloud 9 has no union and b.) the employees are free to “voice” their opinions. Glenn, who up until this point had been quite the corporate drone even after Cloud 9 destroyed his family’s hardware store, decides to finally rebel and give Cheyenne six weeks off with pay so she can be with her child. His act of rebellion leads to him being fired and results in the rest of the employee’s walking out.
This particular season finale (Superstore has been picked up for a second season) directly critiques some of the most unjust practices in big-box stores – no paid maternity leave, no union which means no set legal rights for workers, and if one speaks out against something, they are immediately taken out. Although these practices feel like something out of a Dickens novel, they are indeed how many big-box workers are treated. The employees on Superstore are portrayed as underpaid and overworked with little-to-no-time for their friends and family, which is the exact same struggle that many big-box workers face. For instance, Walmart currently employs 1.4 million Americans, with many more seeking work there. According to Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at U.C. Berkeley, Wal-Mart could easily afford to pay their employees $15 per hour (since their net worth is $17 billion) but they usually pay minimum wage (for starting associates, managers are paid more). In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, she attempted to live off of Wal-Mart wages for a brief period and found that she was living on the poverty line. After Ehrenreich’s book came out, many Americans finally realized the struggles minimum-wage workers go through. Although this did not lead to a complete change for these workers, it did bring attention to their toil which is the first step to change.
While many news outlets will cover the plight of retail workers (especially around the holidays) it’s not commonly covered in literature, film, or television, making Superstore one of the first. And maybe, just maybe, highlighting these issues in an easy-to-digest comedy format will shine some much needed light on these bigger issues. So kudos Superstore for being the first show brave enough to take on these big-box store issues, it will be interesting to see what’s in store for season two.