NBC's workplace comedy looks back on a long year with humor, heart, and satiric knives out.

By Darren Franich
October 29, 2020 at 08:31 PM EDT
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Our miseries and transformations have not ended. January is years away. 2020 is material artists will be mining until civilization ends, next week. And, on Thursday night, Superstore returned. The wonderful season 6 premiere did a solid job squeezing the last seven months or so into a half-hour-with-commercials runtime, with the characters experiencing multiple eras of viral terror and the nation’s unfinished reckoning with institutional racism. “Essential” is instant history with big laughs, sweetly downbeat in its focus on regular people caught in the maelstrom. It’s a high for the series, and a good entry point for any new viewer looking for cathartic comedy. Sometimes you just need an episode of television, and I sure needed this one.

Last season hit a COVID wall right in the middle of a send-off. Amy (America Ferrera) got a fancy promotion, requiring a move out west. Jonah (Ben Feldman), her work-crush-turned-boyfriend, said he’d move with her. Viewers knew Ferrera was leaving but Feldman wasn’t. “Essential” necessarily pauses all plans. It begins in March, with the Cloud 9 employees expressing vague concern about “this coronavirus deal.” Panic hits. Customers swarm the toilet paper. Amy quotes official parent company blather about how the workers are “the true heroes.”

Credit: NBCUniversal

By now, this is familiar trench humor for most of humanity. But the script by Bridget Kyle and Vicky Luu succeeds by putting special focus on bringing minor order to major chaos. Corporate offers no guidelines, so safety has to be improvised. Everyone starts wearing makeshift masks. The characters on Superstore are always struggling a little (or a lot) to get by, so some start hoarding supplies away from customers. Against all odds, there is a good Tiger King joke. “That was, like, early pandemic?” is how Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom) explains the ravenous fandom for Netflix’s feral-cat docusoap. “No one really cares anymore.”

Superstore hit a comfortable cruising altitude last season. New showrunners Gabe Miller and Jonathan Green detonated one big new plot bomb: the purchase of Cloud 9 by Zephra, a rah-rah megacorp with Orwellian tracker tech. Superstore’s always been a delightful sitcom about life in an inhuman consumerist dystopia, and that satiric instinct is on full display when the premiere skips forward to June. Amy tells the staff that corporate has finally, finally sent safety supplies. A box opens with a flourish, revealing locks, caution tape, and anti-looting procedures. “If you wanted to be protected by corporate,” Jonah mutters, “You should’ve been merchandise.”

There’s a giant poster, too: “ZEPHRA BELIEVES IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY.” Garrett (Colton Dunn) rolls his eyes. “What are we, ghosts?” Exhaustion and paranoia are taking a toll, even on ever-chipper Glenn (Mark McKinney). He’s initially charmed by Zephra’s true-hero messaging. Then a customer sneezes on him. It’s a wonderful bit of visual comedy — the guy literally lowers his mask to sneeze — and the look on McKinney’s face is horror-film perfect. By summer, Glenn’s sunny demeanor barely represses internal torment. “Everything’s fine!” he swears. “In fact, in my panic dream last night, the person clubbing me to death was Topher Grace. So… little taste of Tinseltown for y’all.”

Topher Grace has certainly been clubbing a lot of us to death lately, and on some level I’m just impressed that Superstore is happening at all. A network television show has rapid-testing resources way beyond any St. Louis big-box stores, but even a heavily bubbled production is just one positive result away from shutdown. “The one good thing about being relentlessly exposed to this virus is we’re all doing it together,” Mateo (Nico Santos) says. He could almost be speaking for the cast and crew of Superstore — or a whole country staring down the barrel of a long winter.

There are needles threaded here, real horrors acknowledged without departing from our long-established characters’ funny perspectives. I loved watching Dina (Lauren Ash) spray COVID-anxious Glenn down with a hose — and loved the perfectly Dina-ish brag about the hose’s new high-powered nozzle. A brief cutaway reveals that Glen the robot is now armed with sanitizing spray, marauding down the aisles while Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” plays in the background. A customer purchases beer for everyone, which leads to a nice after-hours hangout. “We are celebrating or numbing the pain,” Jonah says, “I can’t really tell which.” It’s a tender work-family moment. Then Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) declares, hilariously and without much context: “Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night, and I think I see my bus driver lurking over our bed.”

“Essential” climaxes when Amy joins a call with Kira (Jee Young Han), the Zephra CEO. Kira Zooms into an all-hands from a well-furnished home that, from what we can see, looks about as big as a superstore. She cheerleads Cloud 9’s big apocalypse earnings spike: “Great job, guys, way to slay!” Through a fuzzy-freezy connection, Amy begs to differ. “Sales are up, but morale is way down,” she explains, earning a fine-whatever promise of masks and gloves. Ferrera really will depart in next week’s episode, and one silver lining in 2020’s planet-swallowing dark cloud is that “Essential” provides an unplanned bonus showcase for her comedic exasperation. Amy is getting pulled in every direction, stapling together on-the-fly pandemic protocols even as corporate pulls her into one videoconference after another. She has no time for anything. It’s taking a toll. “I’m a terrible girlfriend, too, and an awful mother,” she moans, before she even notices the giant hole in her store’s ceiling.

“You’re in an impossible situation,” Jonah says. “We all are. I don’t know. Something has to change.” I don’t know either, but something has changed. Superstore is back. That’s something to celebrate, and a little less pain to numb. Grade: A

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