By Darren Franich
March 07, 2019 at 02:42 PM EST
Tyler Golden/NBC
  • TV Show

In an upcoming episode of Superstore, a blizzard traps the employees of the Cloud 9 outpost on Ozark Highlands Road. Record snowfall has frozen the doors shut. Assistant manager Dina (swaggery Lauren Ash) has a survival plan that doesn’t involve immediate cannibalism. In a sense, this is a normal day. Superstore (returning Thursday at 8:00 p.m. on NBC) is a zany network comedy, but it shines with insidious brightness. Here’s an old-fashioned workplace sitcom where work is an economic prison. Employees wear matching blue vests and matching grimaces, caught between customers and corporate overseers.

Sound dour? It’s a riot. I live for sequences in the break room, when laugh lines pinball through the brilliant ensemble. There’s Amy (America Ferrera), who got only two whole days for maternity leave from a company she’s served for 15 years. Her love interest-turned-boyfriend Jonah (Ben Feldman) is the local ineffective intellectual, like I guarantee he’d love the phrase “economic prison.” Mateo (Nico Santos) is a judgy prima donna — and an undocumented immigrant seeking asylum (yeesh, bad timing). Manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) has a sunny outlook on life, while cynical Garrett (Colton Dunn) delivers loudspeaker announcements he doesn’t care about to customers who care less.

Superstore‘s fourth season has been on hiatus since December. It was a nerve-wracking break, frankly, for a show that never gets the attention it deserves. (Critical hat-tip to Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, who’s been drumbeating the show’s brilliance for awhile now.) Thankfully, NBC just announced a season 5 renewal. And a burst of new episodes starting Thursday exemplifies this sitcom’s goofy-sharp charm. A Fitbit-ish Cloud 9 health initiative tallies employees’ steps, a fully Orwellian policy pitched as smiley inter-store competition. The screen fills with product placement — every scene is a chance to play “Spot the LaCroix!” — but what other show has ever dared to make (funny!) jokes about Oprah Winfrey, AIDS, and Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, all in one minute or less?

In our binge-everything era, the episodic plots are uniquely welcoming to newcomers. (Late to another party, I only started watching last year.) Some gags can feel a little too old-fashioned, misunderstandings piled atop overreactions. But Superstore is rewardingly humane. Consider Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi), a gloomy loner whose ongoing star-crossed attachment to eternally befuddled Jerry (Chris Grace) is starting to achieve Ross-and-Rachel levels of romantic tragicomedy. And this season has wonderfully showcased Ferrera (who’s also a producer). Amy wants to become a store manager, requiring her to attend a dopey training retreat where a PowerPoint advertises “The Three L’s of Leadership!” Amy’s ambition is a downbeat joke that the show also believes in.

Believe in Superstore, too. On paper, it’s a no-concept throwback: People work together, laughs ensue. But creator Justin Spitzer has evolved a classical setup into a vitally modern American tale, exuding Must See TV warmth and chilly downward-mobility anxiety. All hail the Cloud 9 employees: Their drudgery is joyful. A-

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