Every week, CBS’ Superior Donuts uses the setting of a Chicago donut shop to tackle various issues in American life. The heart of the show is the friendship between 75-year-old donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski (Judd Hirsch) and his young employee Franco (Jermaine Fowler), but over the course of its run, the show has accumulated a wide cast of characters with divergent experiences and opinions on subjects like police brutality and gentrification.
This season, the show added Diane Guerrero (Orange Is the New Black) as Sofia, a young Colombian-American woman who runs a food truck outside the donut shop. As Guerrero wrote in her 2016 memoir In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, she was separated from her family at age 14, when her parents were detained and deported to Colombia while she was still in school. So when it came time to develop a Superior Donuts episode based on the topic of immigration and deportation, Guerrero had real-life experience to bring to the table.
That episode of Superior Donuts, titled “The ICEMen Cometh” after the common abbreviation for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), features Sofia struggling to hide her undocumented brother from ICE after agents show up at the donut shop looking for immigrants to deport. EW spoke with Guerrero about developing the episode and her experience with the U.S. immigration system.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this episode come about? Did you talk with showrunner Bob Daily and the other writers about how to incorporate your experience with deportation into the show?
DIANE GUERRERO: Before I took on the role of Sofia, the writers knew a little bit of what my story was and what I was an advocate for. The show obviously talks about different issues in society every episode, whether racism or police brutality or women’s rights. Before I even came on, Bob Daily mentioned that immigration was something they wanted to discuss as well. I was like, Okay that’s the show I want to be on, a show that educates the public and raises questions for the audience to have discussions. When they did this episode, they did ask for my opinion of what I thought about the episode and what changes could be made, if it was feasible, things like that. I was very involved in the episode.
How do you fuse such a traumatic real-life experience with sitcom humor?
It was very difficult, especially for me. I mean, how do you find the humor in this? They take someone who’s been here their entire lives and send them to somewhere they don’t know. It’s a 22-minute show, so it’s very difficult to have the kind of nuance you need to talk about a topic as sensitive as immigration and deportation. But you try! We certainly did. Where there’s sorrow and conflict, you can find laughter and humor. That’s what we tried to do while tackling a difficult subject. That’s what we do on every show.
The donut shop is filled with a wide spectrum of characters, so you get diverse opinions on important subjects like this. But was it frustrating to watch characters come up with counter-arguments for a topic like this that means so much to you?
Yeah, it was difficult when you revise a script. I wanted to make sure that the language was appropriate and not violent, and that there was some chance for my character to educate the public. But you still needed Fawz (Maz Jobrani) as to offer an opposite opinion so we can actually discuss what’s going to happen in America. Americans are either divided on immigration or don’t know anything about it. So characters say ignorant things, and it was important for my character to jump in and say that you can’t say certain things, you can’t call a person “illegal,” this is how you say it. It was frustrating because I was really invested in the episode but had to remind myself there’s only 20 minutes to talk about this. I had to really let some things go and compromise on what I wanted to convey.
One thing I liked about this episode is that, though there’s a lot of sitcom zaniness happening, the ICE agents are not funny. They don’t make jokes, in fact one of them kills a joke at one point, and they are not being played for laughs.
Right. Yeah no, I was happy about that too. I was also glad that the person making the very insensitive jokes was Fawz, who is a citizen but is himself not viewed as the kind of immigrant that some of these more conservative Americans want in their country anyway, which is pretty ironic and funny. It goes to show you how silly that character is.
In the episode, Arthur wants to help Sofia and is willing to donate to immigration organizations, but is a lot more nervous about actually disobeying the law or hiding people from law enforcement. Do you encounter that divide in real life when you talk about immigration? What were you trying to convey with that element of the episode?
You do encounter a lot of that. That’s only because I feel like people really don’t understand the immigration system and how broken it is. In their mind, it’s like, “If my family did it the right way, why couldn’t your family do it?” A lot of people have this mentality, but it’s only because it’s the way the system has been set up, especially in our educational system. We haven’t really discussed it properly, we haven’t talked about the different ways people could achieve citizenship, if there is a path or not (which there isn’t). There’s a scene where my character says, “Hey, there is no back of the line. If you knew where it was, please tell me and I’d be right behind it.” I know that’s how a lot of the community feels. We didn’t even discuss the visa system and how it needs updating, since it’s not balanced based on some of the people they let in and some they don’t. We also didn’t talk about our history and how our history influences the system that is in place right now. Arthur tries to touch on it by saying “we’re all immigrants,” the whole idea of bootstrapping. But who had boots to bootstrap, and who didn’t? I was so glad we were able to touch on that. Arthur is a good example of someone who cares about people and understands the idea that America was built on immigrants, but he’s still really afraid of breaking the law and won’t do it by any means.
There are a lot of headlines about ICE these days, arresting fathers when they’re dropping off their kids at school or locking detainees in solitary confinement. But your family got deported years ago, when you were 14. Does this current phase of ICE represent a break with America’s immigration past or is it just more visible now and people are talking about it more?
The latter. It’s the same, it’s just that people are talking about it more. The rhetoric has always been the same with the criminalization of immigrant communities, but now it’s super heightened, and it’s something we’re all talking about. Fathers and mothers are still being separated from their kids, but now it’s more visible because we have smartphones and we have different organizations highlighting events like these. It’s always sort of going on, it’s just now people’s lives are more threatened by the end of DACA. DACA was seemingly this break from deportation for young people, and now that’s being taken away ruthlessly. Now people clearly don’t know where to turn, because there’s no protection. There’s now a huge threat of mass deportations that we did not have before.
You were talking about the bootstrap mentality, and DACA was the embodiment of that. Now that it’s been taken away, it’s really heightened the contrasts.
These kids were vetted. The program did exactly what it set out to do. With this new administration, that’s been taken away because of this whole “immigrants taking your jobs” theory. By taking away DACA, they’re using these kids as a scapegoat for their own agenda and ease the unemployed Republicans of the country. But we really didn’t get into that in the episode. We didn’t have time to get into DACA. That was another thing. Like, my brother in the show is a little older than me, but we didn’t even touch on maybe he was a DACA student. The story was about the bakery getting raided and all this other stuff. It was a way to tell the story, but I would’ve liked to talk about how maybe his DACA protection had expired. But there wasn’t enough time to get in the whole explanation of what DACA is.
What do you hope viewers take away from this episode? Especially a CBS audience that maybe hasn’t heard some of these deportation stories before?
What I wanted was at least some exposure on the issue. For a lot of these audiences, there’s a worry that the show is too liberal or that it’s not gonna appease some of our more conservative audience members, but my hope was, who cares if it pleases anyone? The point is to have a conversation, and some of these conversations are difficult, and not everyone will have the same experiences as you. I hope people are able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and empathize with their situation. We see a young woman who has a business and cares about a lot of people and a lot of issues, and she has a brother who is struggling but has been here for a long time, speaks perfect English, and isn’t harming anyone. The point is to see someone else’s life for a second. Instead of looking at something from a place of fear, look at it from someone’s shoes. I hope that somebody got a little bit of information and a taste of what people go through when they’re afraid of being separated from their family. Maybe they’ll start to see the value of comprehensive immigration reform, like Sofia does.
Superior Donuts airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.