The lovely Superstore series finale found the silver lining in a dark Cloud 9: Review
Warning: This review contains spoilers for the Superstore series finale.
Has there ever been a worse time to make a network sitcom? Has there ever been a worse time to do anything? Superstore launched in late 2015, beyond the final fade-out of NBC's last great comedy lineup. "I'll go to cable!" Tina Fey's Liz Lemon had threatened in the 30 Rock finale. "Where you can swear, and really take time to let moments land!" An excellent joke, already ancient a couple years later when Fey's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt streamed on Netflix.
Meanwhile, Superstore aired weekly, with commercial breaks and no bad words — on television, the last place young people go for TV. The concept required no explanation. People work funnily: Go! On first glance, it even looked like an advertisement, familiar shiny brands behind matchy-matchy blue uniforms. A dedicated following grew to appreciate the show's straightforward virtues: exceptional cast, vibrant characters, sharp dialogue, rat-a-tat gags. Under it all you caught a mood of sly despair, familiar to anyone with service experience or the knowledge that their industry had an expiration date. Nameless customers walked in, bothered the Cloud 9 staff, and left. Pop songs played on infinite rotation, the same way the CIA tortures people. Raccoons were a recurring problem, as were amputated body parts. A season ended with a tornado, and everything ended mid-pandemic. They wanted a union, and never got one.
Thursday's two-part finale sums up the show's brisk charms and twisted sensibility. It's a professional apocalypse — and an ode to the rare moments when work is not hell. Bit of a stretch, maybe, how quickly Amy (America Ferrera) ditches her cushy California executive gig for one last shenanigan with her old co-workers. But her mission is magnificent, and impossible. Ninety-five percent of Cloud 9 stores will close, so much brick-and-mortar retail evaporating into… well, the cloud. Only the best can survive, and everyone knows Quincy (Cursed Quincy!) is the Jewel of St. Louis. To stay open, Amy explains, they have to become "the perfect store." Then they find the bag full of feet.
Superstore was boldly hopeless on a macro level. Corporate offered crummy maternity leave, and sent ICE after undocumented Mateo (Nico Santos). True believer Glenn (Mark McKinney) loved Cloud 9 with a kind of subservient adoration, since the big-box giant put his family's hardware store out of business. Capitalism always finds a bigger shark, so Cloud 9 wound up just another defunct subsidiary of Zephra, a smiling tech godcorp tracking employees with a super-fun app. Through it all, Jonah (Ben Feldman) agitated for collective bargaining. So it was a very dark joke when, late in season 4, he had to deliver the case against unionizing:
Retail is dying. And we're already being replaced by machines that can do our jobs better and faster than us… So maybe we should just be happy with what we've got, y'know? Because, for most of us, this is as good as it's ever gonna get.
The dark prophecy came true. In the finale, it doesn't even matter that there are eight human feet in a bag, stashed behind a hastily constructed LaCroix mountain. (I can't tell if that was brilliant product placement or a brilliantly ultra-bleak inversion of product placement; no such thing as bad publicity, of course, but eight human feet in a bag.) Zephra has big plans for the store. It will become a fulfillment center — a term so Orwellian that even joking about its Orwellian quality is self-defeating, like tweeting that social media is antisocial. The impersonal business decision is very personal for Amy. "I spent half my life here!" she says. Around 205 months, in fact, and Ferrera's acerbic exhaustion in Superstore's early seasons didn't suggest raw material for nostalgia. Impending doom doesn't retcon those years into a golden age. "It's a good job," Jonah says late in the finale, trying to explain his long tenure on the floor. "No, it's not," Amy says. "It's a terrible job."
It's awesome to see Ferrera again, after a brief hiatus. She made Amy an unusual comic creation. She started every morning as the token normal person, and by closing time the world always drove her half-crazy. If nothing else, her reduced season 6 role should make her a shoo-in for a Guest Actress Emmy nod. Which would be Superstore's first nomination ever, sigh.
Allow a moment, though, to picture what might have been with a few more Amy-less seasons. After creator Justin Spitzer stepped back from showrunning in 2019, executive producers Gabe Miller and Jonathan Green had to weather Ferrera's departure and the freaking coronavirus. They made this final season an essential document of the plague year, even if I always thought characters weren't wearing their masks enough.
More impressively, they transitioned away from any obvious focal character, making room for the larger ensemble. Dina (Lauren Ash) and Garrett (Colton Dunn) sort of became the central couple, diagonally reattached in an open-ish relationship. The wonderful Kaliko Kauahi had already been promoted to series regular, and Sandra's straight-faced adoption of a full-grown teenager was so weird and so sweet. Marcus (Jon Barinholtz) got weirder, and funnier. Superstore really thrived in its break-room scenes, which moved to the spacious warehouse for antiviral precaution. The pinwheeling conversation about racism in the "Hair Care Products" episode was maybe the best meeting scene ever, and a good example of how Superstore's big cast didn't have to stretch for relevance. Trusty one-liner snipers like Janet (Carla Renata), Earl (Will McLaughlin), and Sayid (Amir M. Korangy) appeared more frequently. Felipe Esparza left me cackling every time Cody popped up, and Baron Vaughn seemed to be in his own sitcom about the world's most absurdly confident security guard. Franchesca Ramsey joined the cast as Nia — she would have been a too-obvious love interest for Jonah if this were a lesser show; instead, she was just a chill not-interested new person who also loves NPR.
I thought this version of Superstore could run on forever, departing leads making way for an ever-deeper bench of supporting characters. Maybe they'd be led by new store manager Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura). Maybe by season 9 there would be a wordless episode about Elias (Danny Gura) freakishly walking the aisles, or a whole episode of just customer cutaways.
Even when NBC announced the cancellation, I figured they'd leave room for eventual revival. A Cheyenne-centric spin-off remains in development. But the finale closes this book by closing the store. A liquidation sale leaves Cloud 9 barren. Glenn ponders retirement, and Mateo worries his precarious immigration status renders him unemployable. Dina's already secured a position managing the fulfillment center, but she can only take five employees with her. Amy returns on closing day: "I wanted to see everybody one last time." Glenn locks his onetime protégé back into the blue vest. Her final fake name tag: Vangeline."
There's a just-right blend of sentimental cynicism, so many emotional send-offs undercut by harsh reality. I'll miss how Santos turned Mateo into an incredibly sympathetic gossipy judge-monster. I laughed every time McKinney said "Jerusha!" and I laughed every time Justine (Kelly Schumann) did anything at all. Ash turned Dina into the breakout character, a brash, bird-loving, oddly logical loon with people skills gleaned from Full Metal Jacket. She softened, as all sitcom people do, but it was still a shock when she choked up in her final farewell to Glenn. (Was Ash really starting to cry? I was!) A reunion for Jonah and Amy was inevitable, which didn't make their final kiss feel any less earned. Peak Superstore: Their utmost moment of soaring romance gets cut off by a confused customer with a biologically specific question about menstrual cups.
I don't like it when series finales feature clip reels, big emotional speeches, and happily-ever-after montages, because I am an inhuman robot who spends my cold soulless days wishing all TV was more like The Prisoner. Damn it, though, the last five minutes of Superstore worked on me. I loved the decision to give Garrett the final word. "If jobs were fun, they wouldn't pay us to do it," he says. "Most jobs suck 99 percent of the time, so you really gotta enjoy those moments that don't." Dunn nails these closing lines, never reaching for emotion. Garrett's still a cynic, but even a pointless job finds a point after 20 years.
While he speaks, we see flashbacks (fine, whatever), and brief shots of his co-workers listening (sob!), and flash-forwards (or dreams?) of a brighter tomorrow. I'm not sure Sturgis & Sons will find this century more hospitable to small businesses than the last one. I worry Jonah's political ambitions will require him to speak to other humans, never his strong suit. (Credit Feldman for more or less inventing a new archetype with his likably annoying uber-progressive, always wrong even when he was right.) COVID goggles, I know, but that lovely shot of everyone at the backyard barbecue is one of the most moving things I've ever seen. Our aspirations lately are so modest. People sitting close together? Whither this lost utopia????
"Modest" is a word that comes to mind a lot when I think of Superstore. Is that unfair? The finale pays off two will-they-or-won't-they relationships, and justifies show-long serialized paranoia about Cloud 9's continued existence. It also solves a long-running mystery; all those happy-ending feels ran alongside the revelation that a longtime joke character is, like, a serial killer (or a fetishistic grave-robber). A six-year run with decent ratings is nothing to sniff at.
Still, worth remembering how the last batch of NBC sitcoms ended. Parks & Recreation and 30 Rock had a couple politicians swing by for celebratory cameos. The Office brought back all its stars for a wedding-bonanza group hug. I love that whole era — throw in Community and those Thursdays were the best Thursdays — and I still think it's weird how so many of those characters wound up becoming some kind of president, leading successful companies and/or America. All just for laughs, of course, but a certain strain of triumphalism runs through those conclusions, a trend that apexed years later when The Good Place fixed the universe. We did it! those wrap-ups seem to say. And now the world is ours!
Superstore never had the privilege of a false sense of security. From 2015 to now are some of the worst years. And one secret strength of this very peppy sitcom was how it reflected the sense that network TV itself is a fading economy, one more creature for the Zephras to devour. Sooner or later we'll all find ourselves inside the husk of an old business model — taking advantage of the liquidation sale, unless we're the ones being liquidated. I will remember Jonah and Amy, in the empty greeting-card aisle, finding something good in the ruins. "Occasionally there were moments that weren't so bad," Garrett says. One great moment lasted six seasons.
Finale grade: A-
Series grade: A