[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Superstore” through the Season 4 premiere, “Back to School.”]
When Sam and Diane started their decade-long flirtation on “Cheers,” no one noted their status as employer and employee. The same was true for NBC’s next generation of canoodling coworkers, Jim and Pam on “The Office.” But in 2018, a “love trumps all” argument doesn’t fly, and the savvy minds behind “Superstore” know it.
The long-running platonic pair played by Ben Feldman and America Ferrara finally shared more than a kiss at the end of Season 3, when their backroom hook-up was live-streamed to the big box store’s TVs and beyond. In the Season 4 premiere, the most pertinent question on fans’ minds is, “Are Jonah and Amy together?” Creator Justin Spitzer and episode writer Jonathan Green provide an answer — two, really — but also seize the opportunity to focus on what constitutes consent, double standards about sex, and why the employees were disciplined for getting together at all.
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Spending an entire episode educating the audience on #MeToo-inspired conversations is a bold move for a broadcast comedy, but the premiere’s balanced plotting remains a consistent series highlight. The key talking points and sharp comedy are so skillfully blended, there’s never a lag. “Back to School” works because it feels honest, and it’s what distinguishes this network workplace romance.
Jonah and Amy are back to business as usual at Cloud 9, after serving a company suspension for their actions. Amy is initially relieved when her colleagues don’t make fun of her embarrassing sexcapade, but when she finds out why her typically invasive and jocular co-workers are keeping quiet, she’s (rightly) infuriated.
“What you’re saying is no one is talking to me about the whole sex thing because they think, as a woman, I must be filled with shame about it?” she asks her boss, Glenn (Mark McKinney). Flustered, he says yes, before noting how he hasn’t really caught up with all this “#MeToo stuff.” “All I know is one day Charlie Rose was there, and the next day he wasn’t,” Glenn says.
Credit McKinney for peppering his character’s ignorant stance with enough innocence and sincerity to make the line work, but the exchange illustrates the episode’s skill. They’re talking about workplace sexual harassment in a way that’s funny and manages to clarify common points of confusion: A woman can take advantage of a man, sex isn’t inherently shameful, and consent always matters, just to name a few. Moreover, the episode makes it clear why what happened between Jonah and Amy isn’t sexual harassment, even though they had to be punished for (publicly) fornicating at work.
Not so long ago, a sitcom with a workplace-romance plotline faced only one issue: “Will they or won’t they?” The audience didn’t care if a bar owner yanked his new waitress toward him for a kiss, or saw a salesman swoop in to smooch the receptionist during an office party. The new-world order might seem like a burden, but “Superstore” writers have turned a bug into a feature. It’s been five long months (almost to the day) since Season 3 left viewers with Amy and Jonah’s long-awaited hookup, and fans have been eager to see what, exactly, it means for their future. So to cap off an episode about sex in the workplace, a sexual harassment seminar turns into a Q&A with Amy and Jonah about their in-office indiscretion. The premiere digs into the act itself in detail, while the plot provides a topical backdrop for the discussion.
Throughout its run, the NBC sitcom has managed to surprise viewers without frustrating them and slowly built a legitimate romance between two characters everyone assumed would get together. When audiences expect something to happen and the writers have to give it to them, both parties are working from a disadvantage. And still, “Superstore” has made smart choices at every turn.
It’s kind of like Glenn’s bewildered quote in the premiere: “We are living in a #MeToo, Time’s Up, ‘This Is Us’ kind of world, and there are no rules anymore — but also, there’s nothing but rules.” Spitzer is working within the confines of many past romantic-comedy set-ups, using legitimate impediments (like Amy’s marriage) and unexpected concessions (like their kiss during the tornado episode) to tease a long-in-the-works coupling. Even when Jonah and Amy reveal they are together, but hiding it from their co-workers, the moment invites memories of Jim and Pam denying their romantic status at work.
Honesty goes a long way — not just between the couple, but with viewers, too. In 2018, it’s odd to see one of TV’s best romantic-comedies circle around an assistant manager and her employee, with almost all of their big moments happening while they’re on the clock. By all accounts, this story shouldn’t work. But by staying current and treating the audience with respect, “Superstore” has given the world a new romance to celebrate, even at work.