Despite the insistence by certain online factions, the right is neither “starting to get better at comedy” nor “making lefties nervous” with their imaginary strides in the field. At the same time, the state of liberal-leaning television comedy is dire, as if three years of Trump has rendered everyone perpetually unprepared. The nightly political commentary of talk show monologues and Saturday Night Live sketches have rarely been worse, trafficking in hacky punchlines and cheap impressions. Their failure to keep up with the speed of the news combined with an unspoken mandate not to alienate mainstream audiences has left them rudderless and impotent. SNL’s recent fiasco with hiring and subsequently firing a comic with “conservative appeal” only highlights their desperation to maintain an equal-opportunity centrist position.
Sitcoms, on the other hand, have taken a slightly different tact to addressing our divided culture, either by punting entirely or making stale attempts to communicate a liberal worldview. The latter usually exists on a spectrum, with one end taking the form of tossed-off asides or pointed one-liners, such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s wink-wink-nudge-shove approach to Trumpian defenses (“Yeah, that’s definitely the language of the innocent!” Andy Samberg’s character sarcastically notes when his fellow officer accuses him of being “fake news”), and the other being gentle satire that preaches to the choir, like The Simpsons’ tone-deaf musical parody “West Wing Story,” which attacked racist invective against freshman Democratic congresswomen of color. While half-hour comedies are certainly not obligated to tackle sociopolitical strife, it’s telling that the few that have tried mostly failed to say much of anything.
The sole exception on network television remains NBC’s Superstore, a comedy set in a Walmart-style big-box retail store—the fictional Cloud 9—that openly confronts issues of unionization, health care, and immigration from an explicitly progressive perspective. Since its premiere in 2015, creator Justin Spitzer and his team of writers have built a series in which the audience’s sympathies lie with those who reside beneath the corporate boot as they struggle to eke out an equitable life within a system of inequality.
The show accomplishes this mission not by coasting on the optics of a diverse cast or inelegant political bromides, but by crafting a narrative infrastructure where those ideas naturally fit. As Superstore has evolved over the past four years, it has only doubled down on its political worldview, recently exploring corporate union-busting and immigration enforcement. No other show has dedicated so much time to illustrating how the convergence of capitalist business practices and conservative policies threatens the livelihood of the working class.
Superstore dramatizes progressive issues by treating its characters’ precarious economic status as an ongoing concern. In the first season’s finale, it’s revealed that Cloud 9 doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, which jeopardizes the health of Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom), a pregnant, high-school-aged employee who continues to work long hours for the sake of her future child. After she gives birth in the store, sympathetic manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) purposely suspends Cheyenne for six weeks with pay to get around the rule, but when a flunky from Corporate overhears his decision, Glenn is fired for his generosity. This prompts a storewide walkout, spearheaded by series leads Amy (America Ferrera) and Jonah (Ben Feldman), which eventually snowballs into a full-blown strike. It’s the first of many solidarity-related storylines about the employees’ uphill battle toward unionization and job security.
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Spitzer and company depict the adversarial relationship between labor and management with appropriate cynicism. The series’ corporate mouthpieces—stern district manager Jeff (Michael Bunin) and his callous, cocaine-using replacement Laurie (Jennifer Irwin)—are sent down to chastise and monitor the staff or to find areas to enforce austerity. They present themselves as worker-friendly but really only have the profit motive at heart. Even Jeff, who is portrayed as somewhat understanding of the workers’ struggle, has limits to his altruism. When he teams up with the Cloud 9 employees to expose the company’s discriminatory practices against the elderly during a live-streamed town hall meeting, he chickens out at the last minute after being offered a regional manager position.
None of the show’s depictions of labor disputes can be necessarily characterized as radical—bosses have been screwing over workers on television for generations now. But Superstore’s frank attitude toward the despairing reality of the situation feels notable. The series admirably favors humor over didacticism, never letting the political points overwhelm a farcical plot or the opportunity for a good joke. Episodes often end without victory—workers’ hours are slashed, layoffs occur without reasonable warning, an employee struggles with homelessness—yet Superstore doesn’t suddenly morph into a drama to justify the seriousness of the material. Mundane workplace hijinks are juxtaposed with grave political realism without the latter taking control, which ultimately provides the series with more emotional weight than if it were reversed. Superstore’s politics are defined by this real-world texture, yet it doesn’t wallow in defeat, either. It hopes for a better world—hence the show’s activist focus—but it never once buys into a naive optimism that turns a blind eye to the current moment.
Recently, Superstore has taken on the sizable burden of dealing directly with Trump-era immigration policy. In season two, Mateo (Nico Santos), a Filipino employee, suddenly learns he’s undocumented and spends the next two years concealing his immigration status from Corporate. Though he has some friends in high places—Jeff, Mateo’s boyfriend during a stretch of the show, at one point quits his district manager job to avoid exposing him; Glenn looks the other way when he’s required to check every employee’s immigration status through the DHS website E-Verify—his situation eventually becomes untenable when the company endorses an ICE raid to quash the ongoing unionization talks.
Unlike its many network sitcom peers, Superstore keenly acknowledges the intersection of class and race and understands the necessity of liberation on both fronts as a safeguard against corporate and government abuse. When Amy, recently promoted to store manager, is forced to cut back workers’ hours across the board, she tries to force Corporate to reverse its decision by sending out anonymous tweets lampooning the store’s shambolic state. Unfortunately, that tactic only leads to an internal investigation and triggers the firing of a scapegoat, the lonely, attention-seeking Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi). Treated as a folk hero by her fellow employees, Sandra publicly pushes for unionization, which forces Amy to appease Corporate before it shuts down the store and puts everyone out of work.
It’s an admirably complex and layered storyline that throws every character’s standard ideological positions off balance. Amy, a Honduran-American who spent 15 years as a floor worker, doesn’t want to neglect her new position as store manager, which guarantees her a high salary and luxury benefits. But Superstore argues that simply by being in the management structure, Amy inherently functions in opposition to the welfare of her friends. She pressures Jonah to sabotage a union meeting while she convinces the higher-ups not to close the store, which will save the workers’ jobs but perpetuate their diminished rights—a hollow triumph if ever there was one. Later, when she tries to get Jonah to inform on his fellow employees regarding the union talks, he balks at the suggestion and strongly implies that she’s acting in her own callous self-interest.
Superstore mines the gray area of this ethical calculus without belaboring the point. Isn’t it understandable that a Latinx mother who fought her way into a position of power tries to retain it? At the same time, is it worth holding on to such a position if it means selling out not just your principles but also the literal safety of your peers? Superstore doesn’t equivocate on the issue—it ultimately backs the workers. But the show acutely understands why a woman of color would be pushed into a staunchly capitalist position solely out of self-preservation. The scarcity of opportunities combined with the lack of diverse hiring practices, let alone an infrastructure for advancement, makes someone like Amy a unicorn in the management field. It’s reasonable that she would be reluctant to give up her new job, even if keeping it came at the expense of others.
Yet when ICE bursts through the doors searching for Mateo, Amy doesn’t hesitate to abandon corporate protocol and throw her support behind her fellow workers. She and the rest of the team struggle to get Mateo out of the store before he’s spotted. As they strategize, the ICE officers rudely disrupt their work environment while the commander cracks offensive jokes. (“[Illegals] look just like you and me—well, you,” he sneers at Amy.) But the store’s collective support isn’t enough to save Mateo. The fourth season ends with him being hauled away in the back of van, his face framed in the vehicle’s barred window, as his fellow employees watch in helpless silence. It’s an appropriately shocking moment that’s treated with the utmost gravity, and it hits precisely because Superstore hasn’t overplayed that hand. It accomplishes what the best television can: When a tragedy befalls a character that the audience has watched for years, it feels like it’s happening to a friend.
The fifth and current season’s premiere picks up a week after Mateo’s arrest and follows the employees’ experiences handling the news. Dina (Lauren Ash), Cloud 9’s obstinate assistant manager, blames herself for not finding Mateo an appropriate escape route and schemes, in vain, to break him out of the ICE detention center. Cheyenne acts out because of the trauma and refuses to visit Mateo out of fear. The rest of the employees hold a candlelight vigil outside the center to honor their imprisoned friend. Meanwhile, Corporate ramps up its automation plans by introducing a robot floor cleaner, heightening the employees’ fears that their jobs might soon become redundant.
Superstore thankfully hasn’t lost its sense of humor, even as the material it deals with gets more serious. In the premiere’s opening scene, set at the candlelight vigil, the employees can’t decide what song to sing in support of Mateo; everyone eventually belts out the popular Bagel Bites jingle in unison as a compromise. Dina’s increasingly desperate plans to break Mateo out become more and more absurd, eventually culminating in her nearly bathing in a pool of recalled dog food and leftover Manhattan clam chowder to acclimate herself to the sewer tunnels she might use to help Mateo escape. When Superstore does return to Mateo’s situation, however, it’s treated matter-of-factly rather than with melodrama. After Amy forces Cheyenne to visit him, Mateo tells her in a low voice that he can’t understand the guards because, since they erroneously assume all undocumented people are Latinx, they yell at him in Spanish. There’s no way to hear that and not cringe at the specificity of that abuse.
The show handles Mateo’s bond release with the same type of practical realism. When his deportation lawyer visits the store, he makes it clear to Amy that positive testimonials from fellow employees won’t be enough to prove that Mateo deserves to be out on bond. (“Honestly, right now, I’m representing a Pulitzer Prize winner, a heart surgeon that’s a father of six, and a former Olympic athlete, and those people aren’t guaranteed to get out on bond,” he tells her.) It’s only after he discovers that ICE was called in response to unionization threats that he can make a case for Mateo’s release, since ICE isn’t supposed to conduct worksite enforcement during labor disputes. Corporate overreach combined with worker solidarity are responsible for Mateo’s freedom.
Superstore’s ongoing fifth season appears alongside a host of new network comedies that either try to tell the immigrant story or confront this administration’s toxic immigration policies. For CBS, Chuck Lorre’s Bob Hearts Abishola follows a white Detroit sock manufacturer’s romance with a Nigerian cardiac nurse. TBS’s Chad, created by and starring former SNL cast member Nasim Pedrad, chronicles a Persian teenager’s struggles in an American high school. On NBC, Kal Penn stars in Sunnyside, about a former New York City councilman who teaches civics lessons to immigrants for their citizenship tests. This wave of sitcoms can be perceived as a rebuke to the government’s staunchly nativist ideology.
However, The Daily Beast reports a depressing lack of nerve among the creators, producers, and executives regarding the points of view on these shows. Lorre falls back on uncontroversial rhetoric about wanting to honor “people who risk everything to build a new life in a strange place” and that it isn’t political to “say that the greatness of this country is predicated on immigrants who came here and worked their asses off.” (Though he admits he’s “politically suffering” under Trump, whatever that means.) Brett Weitz, general manager of TBS, claims Chad isn’t designed to be a polemic and that he wouldn’t “necessarily say [they’re] making a show about an immigrant” as much as they’re making “a show about a boy coming of age.”
Most disappointingly, Penn said in a recent New York Times interview that his show “was never meant to be a reaction to anything” and that the topic of immigration is “all our stories.” Executive producer Matt Murray says they’re “not trying to hit anybody over the head with any sort of political messaging,” which is a remarkable statement considering that Sunnyside’s pilot ends with the news of a character’s arrest by ICE (offscreen).
This type of soft peddling makes a certain amount of sense, considering that these shows are trying to entice the largest audience possible—a difficult feat given that the 18–49 demographic has abandoned network TV in droves. (Only 555,000 viewers in that age range watched the premiere of Sunnyside, an all-time low for an in-season scripted series premiere.) Still, it’s dispiriting to hear so many people wave away any hint of a political agenda when Superstore never shies away from depicting how politics affects working-class Americans. When the president of the United States considers fortifying a border wall with a moat stocked with snakes and alligators, it shouldn’t be considered alienating to create a series that openly believes such tactics are racist and unjust. Superstore has demonstrated this through deliberate action, not empty gestures, time and time again.