Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Admittedly, the premise of NBC’s latest single-camera comedy, Superstore, which aired two “sneak peek” episodes Monday and will return in January, isn’t exactly what you’d call revolutionary. This is far from the network’s first series to focus on an eclectic cluster of employees in a manifestly generic workplace setting, and it owes much not only to The Office (which was occasionally written by this series’ creator, Justin Spitzer) but to the few successful Dunder Mifflin riffs that followed it, from NBC’s own Parks and Recreation to Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine. From the pointedly diverse cast to the stabs at pop culture relevance, little about Superstore feels wholly original.
Even the setting, a big-box retail store called Cloud 9 that feels like American consumer culture given squeaky-clean physical form, is essentially the Buy-More from Chuck (albeit without a backdrop of devil-may-care spycraft). With its sky-blue color scheme and artificially cheery aesthetic, it’s an ungodly mash-up of just about every super-sized discount store that the majority of people avoid for the sake of their wallets and sanity.
Many of the employees and customers will also seem more than a tad familiar to fans of its predecessors. There’s hilariously hapless boss Glenn (Mark McKinney) bridging the gap between Michael Scott and Jerry Gergich; a drill-sergeant HR manager named Dina (Lauren Ash) who’s every bit Dwight Schrute’s sociopathic equal; and even Beau, the ne’er-do-well fiancé (Johnny Pemberton) to resident teen mom Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom), whose white-trash rapping and flashes of sincerity alternately recall Andy Dwyer and Jean-Ralphio Saperstein.
What does feel fresh is the light, fizzy chemistry between Superstore‘s two leads – consummately professional floor manager Amy (America Ferrera, of Ugly Betty fame), and her well-meaning but consummately careless new hire Jonah (Ben Feldman, of the late A to Z). “Oh, it’s a love story?” Audiences might ask. Yes, and no. It’s clear that Spitzer wants these diametrically opposed co-workers to go the way of Jim and Pam (last Office reference, I swear), but he throws enough obstacles in their paths to suggest Superstore will take its sweet time in getting there.
Besides, with a strong cast and more than enough workplace shenanigans to go around, there’s plenty to enjoy about Superstore without a quick-started romance at its center. Ferrera and Feldman bring a ring of truth to their protagonists’ opposites-attract dynamic, alternating between hating and begrudgingly appreciating one another without overplaying either side. They’re an above-average pair of actors to be starring in an NBC comedy, and getting to know them in all their strengths and weaknesses (Jonah manages to put his foot in his mouth whenever interacting with the other employees, particularly when it comes to talking about race or disability; Amy has been working at the store so long she’s forgotten how to see the humor in it) is a great deal of fun.
Elsewhere, Ash mines the paranoid, military-tactician Dina for some surprisingly hearty laughs, and Colton Dunn does very strong work in the role of paraplegic employee Garrett, whose laid-back attitude makes him well-suited to call out many of the Cloud 9’s more absurd happenings as he sees them. But the immediate standout is Pemberton, who somehow renders his intrinsically irritating character pretty hilarious, especially when the fourth episode finds him going on the lam, ostensibly to get away from the specter of fatherhood, with Dina and Amy in hot pursuit. Should Superstore make it past this initial string of episodes, it would not be at all surprising to see him upgraded to series regular status.
The show Superstore most immediately brings to mind is not one of NBC’s more widely known workplace sitcoms but perennial bubble sitcom Community (and anyone familiar with my love for that series should understand even bringing it up here is high praise). Like that show, which eventually accepted its weirdness and blossomed into one of the smartest and boldest comedies on television, Superstore is quick to bring unusual dimension to its somewhat typical characters and fill its firmly established setting with enough visual sight gags and subtle recurring jokes to warrant repeat viewing. Also like Community (or at least season 1 Community, which fans generally agree was solid sitcom fare that only eventually let creator Dan Harmon’s inner freak flag fly before fully unfurling it in later seasons), Superstore feels constrained when it adheres to standard sitcom formula. There are some shockingly great punchlines hidden in Cloud 9’s aisles, and that they’re surrounded by far more stock plots and exchanges leaves the series feeling like one that’s too shy to embrace its oddities – but would benefit immensely from doing so.
The first four episodes are alternately warm and witty, but what's most exciting about Superstore is its potential for unabashed weirdness somewhere down the line.