Superstore’s “Essential Workers” Premiere Is the Only Good TV Episode About the Pandemic

Kevin Fallon
·6-min read

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Superstore, one of TV’s smartest and most plugged-in, though underappreciated, series produced the best episode of television that has grappled with the pandemic thus far.

To be fair, it’s not a tall order, with the efforts from new shows like Social Distance and Love in the Time of Corona to the recent premiere of This Is Us ranging from instantly dated and twee to emotionally manipulative and overwrought. But a caveat like that doesn’t properly celebrate how the NBC sitcom managed not only to capture the uncertainty and unprecedented nature of that moment, but actually add perspective and something new to take away from it.

In other words, where these other shows stopped at merely recounting what it was like in the early months of the pandemic, hoping that was enough to stir some sort of emotion, Superstore made sure there was a point in revisiting it all. It also proved in ways that none of these other shows have that we are actually ready to laugh about things, provided the jokes are smart enough and coming from the right place. “Essential Workers,” the title of Thursday’s Superstore season premiere, was very funny.

It’s hard to decide if it makes sense that the best go at pandemic plotlines thus far is on a series that takes place in a grocery store and from the perspective of its essential workers, or if that may have actually posed more of a challenge; these other shows simply regurgitated talking points about Zooms and masks and social distancing while Superstore zeroed in on how all those measures exacerbated the daily lives of those who had to deal with them while also facing customers on a daily basis, and with no support.

How do you add humor to that experience without making light of it? On the other hand, what better way to understand it than by poking at it with humor?

Even under the glossy lights of a sitcom set and through the zaniness of the ensemble of outrageous characters, the episode illuminates how being forced to spend so much personal time and money on health and safety is affecting the morale of employees who are already scared.

The episode kicks off in March when information about the virus was still a swirl of uncertainty. Then the show follows in the This Is Us footsteps of using Tom Hanks’ diagnosis as the turning point for when it became time to take things seriously, a surreal marker that is apparently now being entered into the record as the nation’s fulcrum moment. “What about Rita? Does it say anything about Rita?” Nico Santos’ Mateo asks, giving respect to Ms. Wilson and finally adding a real joke to the recurrent Hanks theme in these shows.

The episode serves as the beginning of America Ferrera’s swan song as the show’s lead, Amy, the manager of the store. Ferrera was set to leave at the end of season five, but returned for the beginning of this new season when production shutdown meant she wasn’t given a proper sendoff.

In “Essential Workers,” Amy is pulled in a million different directions attempting to decipher corporate’s vague directions on how to ensure the safety of her Cloud 9 store employees, herding the customers who have gone practically feral in a panicked reaction to the news, and also training via constant Zoom calls for her new corporate position in California, which she’ll transition to once it’s safe to travel.

When it’s April, she’s advising her staff to make sure they sing through “Happy Birthday” twice while washing their hands. “But whose name do we insert?” asks Lauren Ash’s brash assistant manager Dina. “I have a friend named Ty and I have a friend named Alexandra Georgina Genevieva. Those are two wildly different time frames.”

Jonah (Ben Feldman) warns that washing hands probably isn’t enough and that everyone might need to wear face coverings and avoid large groups. “Like, say, 50-plus employees and an endless stream of customers?” cashier Garrett (Colton Dunn) asks sarcastically, giving insight to the mind-meld it must be to hear life-saving safety instructions and be told your job will require you to ignore them all.

Corporate won’t send the store proper PPE like masks, so the employees are forced to massacre teddy bears and cut apart under-selling T-shirts in order to fashion some themselves. Even instructions like standing six feet apart are confusing as they work in a crowded grocery store, so Dina takes it upon herself to insist that distance is measured “nips to tips.”

As the months go on, they’re told that they are finally going to be sent safety supplies. But when they open the box, they see that it’s equipment for battening down the hatches and protecting the store from looters. If you want corporate to protect you, it turns out you need to be merchandise. There’s a “Zephra Believes in the Black Community” included in the box (Zephra is the corporate owner of Cloud 9). “What, are we ghosts?” asks Garrett.

There are a slew of cute jokes that flit at major talking points from these last months without making so much of them that they become patronizing or off-puttingly quaint—a critical failure of so many other shows.

Dina and Glenn go on a power trip after being told they’re “heroes” for being essential workers. A Karen comes in without a mask and starts screaming about her rights and fake medical condition, but is interrupted by the ceiling caving in. The staff had been hoarding toilet paper and supplies in the rafters because, by the time their shifts are done, the ravenous customers have wiped out the stock and there’s nothing left for them to buy.

And there’s a requisite Tiger King joke, but it’s perfectly meta: “Sorry that was like, early in pandemic. No one really cares anymore,” Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura) says. “I think we’re all embarrassed we even cared in the first place,” Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) adds.

It shouldn’t be lost on the audience that the characters they’re watching work at a superstore during the pandemic are played by what may be the most diverse cast in network television. Their existence on screen itself is a subtle commentary on ways in which the coronavirus has disproportionately impacted and endangered minority communities.

That’s what was so great about this episode. While, yes, the pandemic was a loud presence, the commentary was subtle.

I think what people want, in some respect, from TV’s attempts at tackling this is some sort of takeaway, something to have learned from all of it. That’s typically what television does in reaction to current events. But with the pandemic, that’s impossible. We’re still in it. There is no lesson yet, no takeaway, and, really, barely any insight.

But that’s what makes what Superstore did so remarkable. There was no conclusion to be drawn from the way it used comedy to explore what this experience was like for essential workers. But there was, in a small and certainly funny way, something new to glean.

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