The new NBC sitcom Superstore turns a generic big box retailer into a microcosm of American society. Cloud 9 — the logo is powder blue; the interior as brightly lit as heaven — is a consumer culture paradise, promising ecstatic happiness in a box on every aisle. The staff is a model of workplace diversity, the customers a model of modern consumerism. Created by Justin Spitzer, a former writer on Scrubs and The Office, and starring a pair of appealing actors, America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) and Ben Feldman (Mad Men), skilled at wringing laughs and poignancy out of any material, Superstore would seem to be well-stocked with story stuff and talent to make smart yet gentle satire about contemporary culture that’s neither snooty nor sweet.
Or so you’d hope. The two episodes airing tonight — a “special preview” in advance of the show’s official premiere on Jan. 4 — do just enough to demonstrate potential in the premise while failing to flatter its own expression of it, as it stumbles badly into the very smug trap it’s trying to avoid. The opener tracks the first day on the job for Jonah (Feldman), one of those well-meaning white guys who keeps putting his foot in his mouth with his non-white, non-male co-workers. In his meet-cute with (potential love interest?) Amy (Ferrera), Jonah tries to impress her by presenting himself as too cool, too good to be slumming it at Cloud 9, not realizing that Amy is not only a 10-year employee of Cloud 9, but, as floor manager, effectively his boss. When she gives him more rope to hang himself by agreeing with him, Jonah takes the bait with an ironic line: “I know you’re complimenting me, but it might sound like you’re being condescending.”
The line sums up one problem with the pilot: It thinks it’s not condescending when actually it is. Most of this is due to the depiction of Cloud 9’s low-to-middle-class customers, all scuzzy, trashy, idiotic gluttons the show doesn’t try to understand. At one point in the pilot, Jonah accidentally lowers the price on everything in the store to a quarter, which in turn incites the customers to a mindless frenzy of shelf-clearing shopping, everyone racing to check-out and cart away before the store can correct the mistake. The scene recalls those Black Friday scrums you sometimes read about, usually in Facebook posts full of haughty disdain for such behavior.
What’s weird about this bit of business is that the whole point of the pilot seems to be about acquiring a kind of grace for the mundane and the vulgar without being too earnest about it. In an agreeing nod and ironic eye-roll at American Beauty, Jonah — attempting to buoy to Amy’s ground-down spirit (she appreciates her job, but the same-day-every-day monotony is getting to her) — tries to show her the wonder in a floating plastic bag. She ain’t buying it. She gets another shot at learning the lesson when Beau, a wannabe rapper (Kroll Show’s Johnny Pemberton), proposes marriage to another employee, pregnant teen Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom of Shameless), with a reckless stunt. It’s funny enough, but then the show too quickly sabotages the entertainment by having Amy snark at it: “This is all the fault of YouTube.” But then something else happens that’s less inspired and even more cornball, and suddenly, Amy gets it. It’s like the show can’t get out of its own way to let us enjoy what little pleasure it has to offer, then suddenly realizes it’s doing just that, and half-asses a make-good.
The cast is great, but their characters, not so much, at least to start. Amy is one more pop culture female whose function is to play the mature, enlightened scold to the adorably messy guy who needs correction. (What’s strange — again — is that the show seems to know this. “I get it!” she says. “You’re the fun guy! I’m the stick in the mud!” Knowing your clichés and calling them out is not the same thing as, you know, not being clichéd.) Given that she’s married with a kid, and Superstore doesn’t give us any reason to suspect that she’s unhappy in her relationship, I shuddered at every moment when she suggests even a hint of romantic interest in Jonah. Jonah’s impolitic blundering fuels a lot of the comedy in the four episodes made available to critics, but it’s hard to discern if Jonah’s colleagues truly feel insulted or just like to see the clumsy white guy squirm. There’s value in this — it allows the show to make quippy commentary about diversity and representation in pop culture — but it’s toothless (it has no interest in making Jonah unlikable), and I can’t say Superstore is too successful in making it fun or funny yet.
What I can say is that the show makes some corrections as it progresses. There are fewer scenes in which the employees interact with the customers; the benefit is a dial-down in smugness. Characters add some dimension, growing a bit beyond caricature, including Mark McKinney’s Glenn, Cloud 9’s manager and a conservative Christian, and Lauren Ash’s Dina, the store’s assistant manager, part hard-ass, part lonely romantic. The second episode airing tonight, “Magazine Profile,” is superior to the pilot. It gets you liking the Cloud 9 bunch by pitting employees against a common foe (a cynical journalist writing a story about the store for the company magazine) and has a some clever, ironic storylines. In one of them, Bo tries to write a jingle and is torn between something personal, edgy, and overtly political (his preference) and something catchy, soft and non-confrontational. His conflict is the show’s conflict, too, and broadcast television, in general, at a time when it’s trying to stay relevant with the buzz shows on cable. (Every sitcom needs at least one “go-to” character for an easy laugh, and Bo is that character here. His relationship with Cheyenne becomes increasingly poignant.) Like a lot of startups in their early days, Superstore launches as a buggy enterprise. Hopefully it can work them out when it officially opens for business in January. Will you be there when the doors open?