America Fererra returns with working-class comedy ‘Superstore’

30 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Superstore’: So-so new workplace comedy in Aisle 9.

Workplace comedies are certainly nothing new on TV, but NBC’s new sitcom “Superstore” is offering up a lesser-seen version of this trope — by focusing on the lives of employees who are just there to punch a clock. Perhaps to take advantage of what remains of your Thanksgiving weekend tryptophan overload and whatever other holiday indulgences may have left you sleepy and impressionable, NBC has scheduled a preview Monday of its midseason sitcom “Superstore,” whose official premiere is not until January.Chances are you’ll be spending a lot of time over the next month in a place much like the setting of “Superstore” — a new NBC sitcom not premiering until Jan. 4 but getting a two-episode “sneak peek” tonight after “The Voice.” The Cloud 9 associates range from well-meaning to practically certifiable.

A half-hour comedy that’s set in a box-store mega center (one that’s highly suggestive of Wal-Mart) is not a bad idea at all, especially if the jokes could occasionally deliver sharp jabs at consumerism, labor conditions and the economy.So the NBC big-box-store development approach receives an unexpected (and slightly ironic) infusion of energy from Superstore, thanks largely to America Ferrera and Ben Feldman as the adorable, meant-for-each-other leads.It’s been two-and-a-half years since The Office came to a close on NBC, but American workplace sitcoms—and the network that broadcasted the show—are still working through their Dunder Mifflin hangover.

The comedy — which airs a two-episode sneak preview Monday at 10 p.m. before premiering on Jan. 4 — centers on a diverse group of co-workers at a Walmart-like big box store in St. That, unfortunately, is not the sort of show you get with NBC’s slapsticky and hollowed-out “Superstore,” two episodes of which are premiering Monday in advance of the series’ official midseason launch in January. At this point in the season, only three of their new shows stand out as distinctive: CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the season’s most highly original (though sadly, not highly rated) new show; CBS’Supergirl, which while less original, nicely fills a female-hero gap; and Fox’s The Grinder, an increasingly offbeat and enjoyable blend of showbiz spoof and family comedy.

Jonah is also speaking on behalf of NBC’s Superstore, the network’s latest attempt to solve its comedy branding problem with rehashes of the low-rated shows that led to its comedy branding problem in the first place. Louis, Mo. “I love the idea of doing a show about people whose jobs are literally a paycheck,” star America Ferrera tells The Post. “We’ve gotten used to television being so aspirational … You’re always shooting to be the best DA or the best detective or the No. 1 spy or the best athlete, and yet for the majority of people in this country, their job is not their life. Created and written by Justin Spitzer (an “Office” alum), “Superstore” plays mostly like a pitch for a much more clever show that never materializes.

Through four episodes, Superstore absolutely has potential, but it also doesn’t seem like the type of show that will work on a network like this — especially not the way NBC is handling it. Receiving an early preview tonight after The Voice, Superstore will return in January with the also-OK Telenovela — offering a respectable comedy hour at reasonable prices. Even when The Muppets returned to TV this fall, their interpersonal squabbles and backstage capers were made to fit the prototype that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant rolled out of the Slough Trading Estate at the start of the last decade. It also evokes some of the sensibility, if not quite as bleak, as the 2002 Jennifer Aniston film, “The Good Girl.” Clearly based on Walmart, Cloud 9 is far from heaven for floor supervisor Amy (the winsome America Ferrera, of “Ugly Betty”).

Despite a single-camera format, Superstore only once ventures beyond the parking lot of the fictional wholesaler, Cloud 9, during the four episodes previewed. Like his former colleagues Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, Office alum Justin Spitzer injects more than a little of his previous show’s DNA to his latest project for NBC.

They pay their bills and then life is defined by other things.” Ferrera, best known for her starring role in another workplace comedy, “Ugly Betty” (2006-10), plays Amy, the store’s responsible floor supervisor who holds all the wackier employees together. He inadvertently insults his colleagues — several times over — knocks down a display and accidentally reprices all the fancy electronics to a quarter, setting off a stampede to check-out. “Could it be a race riot?” muses dimwit manager Glenn (“The Kids in the Hall’s” Mark McKinney, affecting a Kermit the Frog voice). “It’s so hard to tell in the early stages. The premiere introduces Jonah (Mad Men alumnus Feldman, last seen on NBC on the short-lived comedy A to Z), who immediately antagonizes the levelheaded Amy (Ferrera) by giving off an elitist vibe. More than once in the pilot of Superstore, the staff of fictional big-box retailer Cloud 9 resemble their Scrantonian ancestors, minus the on-camera confessionals. Her no-nonsense attitude clashes with that of new hire Jonah (Ben Feldman, “A to Z”), a naive dreamer with whom she engages in a workplace flirtation.

Still, as we are approaching the season of goodwill towards all, let’s start with the good news: Superstore brings Ugly Betty’s charming-as-ever America Ferrera back to TV, and surrounds her with some talented castmates, including Ben Feldman (Mad Men), Colton Dunn (Key and Peele), Lauren Ash (Super Fun Night) and Mark McKinney (Kids in the Hall). Superstore splits Dwight Schrute in half, with obsequious sales associate Mateo (Nico Santos) inheriting Dwight’s brown nose, and belligerent assistant (to the) store manager Dina (Lauren Ash) getting his authoritarian streak. But even when they’r e bickering (which is often), it’s obvious that he is smitten and that she is more intrigued by him than she cares to let on. As the season goes forward you can see their world views and their walks of life really crashing up against one another, and that may really begin to change them in certain ways. “I kind of love that the love aspect is removed so they just have to engage with each other on a different level, even if that chemistry is there,” she adds.

Alongside them is a small platoon of blue-vested employees — mostly benign but unimaginative stereotypes played by comic actors who have all been taught by the TV industry to compensate for thin material by broadly overacting. As the title indicates, the setting here is a strip mall megastore — the kind of place that promises “one stop shopping for everything you could ever want or need.” That includes fake rings that don’t quite count as jewelry, as the store’s floor manager, Amy (Ferrera), gamely tries to point out to a dimwitted customer. Amy has been at Cloud 9 for a decade, probably about 11 years longer than she ever expected or wanted, but life has an odd way of detouring you from your dreams — or trapping you in a dead-end job.

That version of Community wasn’t the best version of Community, but it was an effective character-driven comedy in a nicely specific environment and it laid the groundwork for the better Community to exist. On another episode, wheelchair user Garrett (Colton Dunn) spends the entire show trying to avoid a company photographer — knowing that an African-American with a disability is seen as irresistible fodder for the corporate magazine.

It can be at cross purposes tonally, sending mixed messages; it seems to condescend to its milieu and people even as it explicitly warns against condescension. A viewer could easily get the feeling that the entire cast is just one blown audition away from actually having to seek retail work — and that, too, would be a funnier idea for a joke than anything seen here.

These include the new guy (Feldman); the seen-it-all clerk (Dunn); the typically clueless manager (McKinney), and the ambitious, rule-driven assistant manager (Ash). Feldman’s Jonah is the Jeff Winger of Superstore, a seemingly overqualified guy forced by circumstances to become part of the mismatched family of oddballs working at fictionalized megastore Cloud 9. Then the show is apt to deliver a surprise, such as a riff on American Beauty or a description of Jonah as so cute that “A panda and a Disney princess had a baby” or that he resembles “a villain on the CW.” Admittedly, recent NBC comedies have generally lowered expectations — and filling the gap between editions of The Voice isn’t the most promising of scheduling options. Teenager Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom, “Shameless”) is six months pregnant and considering a wedding to her rapper-wannabe boyfriend who has an IQ just above room temperature … if that room were in the Arctic and all the windows were open. With recurring sight gags focused on the store’s less savory customers — a child test drives a potty, an adult test drives an actual toilet — that toggle between absurd and acidic, “Superstore” needs to heed its own advice about avoiding condescension.

In the show’s pilot, the first of two episodes airing in tonight’s special preview before its official January launch, those characters mesh well enough to give you some slight hope that Superstore might be more than just empty shelf filler. Whatever the commercial prospects, though, the Superstore/ Telenovela combo not only strikes a blow for diversity by presenting two shows with Latina leads (Eva Longoria headlines the other) but also delivers real laughs in the process.

Jonah’s past is cloudier, but Spitzer’s pilot script and Feldman’s nervy performance make it clear that he’s not “better” than working in retail. And the pilot ends with a rom-com move whose predictability and practical impossibility I found bothersome; others may just be happy with the Big Effect. Ferrera and Feldman have a nice chemistry, but a serious obstacle to potential romance thrown in at the end of the pilot also means that the writers will need to be very careful with the pair’s work flirtation.

For some twisted reason that I heartily endorse, there are nice little transitional scenes that all seem to feature neglected, possibly abandoned children, who sit on the floor and gorge on chocolate bars or relieve themselves into plastic potty chairs on display. Through the early episodes, we don’t learn the circumstances that brought Jonah to Cloud 9, and I like to believe that creator Justin Spitzer is intentionally denying viewers the answer so that we don’t treat Jonah as a source of pity or as a cautionary tale. Garrett (Colton Dunn, “Key & Peele”) is a sarcastic slacker in a wheelchair who knows all the tricks to avoiding work. “Superstore” is a product of “The Office” co-executive producer Justin Spitzer, and like that already classic show, it digs into the mundane indignities of the work experience for its laughs, right down to the company magazine that blasts “Minimum Wage is Maximum Fun.” They, and their humor, become broader and nastier, as the show veers between honoring people in blue-collar retail jobs and condescending toward them. With the annual horrors of Black Friday and holiday shopping mobs fresh on the mind, “Superstore” might also have had potential as a snarky antidote to the season’s psychoses.

Worse yet, though, is the sense that everything you see, and every joke you hear, is being recycled — making this less a superstore than a consignment shop. You think you know what the jokes are going to be with Mark McKinney’s ultra-religious store manager — think Shirley meets The Dean, if we’re sticking with Community comparisons — but by the fourth episode, they’ve been subverted a little, by both the writers and by McKinney’s limb-flailing energy. Pilot director Ruben Fleischer (who’s also an executive producer) puts his action-comedy experience to use in a pair of showstopping set pieces, but later episodes make those look more like an exception than a rule. It’s easier for Superstore to flesh out its characters when they’re freed from storylines about the daily grind, but the show does find occasional inspiration there: Building a groom-and-groom wedding-sale display helps Mateo find the compassionate side of outwardly conservative manager Glenn (Mark McKinney), while Amy bonds with Dina on a quest to track down Cheyenne’s runaway fiancé (Johnny Pemberton, doing scene-stealing work with an objectively aggravating character).

I know that because today is just like yesterday.” If there’s not much chemistry between Feldman and Ferrara, each has good scenes with other actors; he does well with Colton Dunn (in a wheelchair, knows the ropes). That last storyline presents a challenge to Superstore that never faced any version of The Office: The store may prove more interesting than the people who work there. Other actors partner well: Nichole Bloom as a pregnant teenager and Johnny Pemberton as her urban white trash musician boyfriend (his proposed entry in a jingle contest: “Cloud 9, come inside/ Society’s a mirage and sex is a prison” ); McKinney’s comically Christian store manager, Glenn, whom he plays in a fretful upper register, and Nico Santos’ competitive employee Mateo. (Glenn is evolving.

A premise like Superstore doesn’t need conventional normals, which Spitzer probably knows from his experience on The Office, where Jim and Pam’s romance made sense when they fell for each other as kindred oddballs, rather than just as the most conventionally attractive employees at Dunder Mifflin. I thought you might be, but I wasn’t sure, and then I forgot about it.”) The action is punctuated with vignettes of a sometimes surreal bent: old people dancing close on the showroom floor, a worker eating food from the spill he’s cleaning up, twin little girls who suddenly disappear as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” plays in the background, a parade of lawn tractors, a man in his underwear doing laundry in a floor-model washing machine, a sign reading, “Let Cloud 9 design your Chuppa. The commercials are funny, but they also have the effect of reducing a charismatic cast to little more than the grinning faces next to dubious deals like trick-or-treating knockoffs and Halloween merchandise repurposed for Thanksgiving.

If Superstore is to do for the smock-and-name-tag crowd what The Office did for cubicle dwellers, deep discounts on “Goggle-Wearing Villain Helper” costumes can’t be the most compelling reason for a weekly visit. As the ensemble comes together, it will be interesting to see how Superstore settles into an episodic routine – specifically what it chooses to have these increasingly funny employees actually do at their workplace. If Superstore can continue to improve, the show itself can be the underdog as it strives to emulate Community in carving out a long run, despite NBC’s comedy inertia.

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