In the Season 6 episode of “Superstore” titled “Customer Appreciation,” Jonah (Ben Feldman) gets put in his place.
The corporate executives at Zephra — a tech conglomerate that owns the Cloud 9 superstore chain — have been stressing the importance of customer appreciation surveys, using those oft-ignored links at the bottom of every receipt to rank the efficiency, popularity, and general value of each store — never mind that, as Dina (Lauren Ash) says, people only use receipts “to spit out gum and for murder alibis.”
Still, if that’s what matters to corporate, that’s what matters to the workers. Cheyanne (Nichole Sakura) puts the most people-pleasing employees on the registers, hoping their charm will buoy the store’s score, and then she discovers a harsh truth: Jonah is not good with customers. Maybe he once was, but now there are complaints that he talks too much at checkout and makes the store’s guests uncomfortable (seriously, no one should use the term “nom noms”). So Cheyenne sends Jonah to work in the back storeroom, where he and other low-scoring co-workers can’t drag down everyone’s score because they can’t interact with anyone.
“This is ridiculous. I don’t belong with this group,” Jonah says. “I have people skills.”
Jonah being Jonah, he doesn’t simply complete the “busy work” as ordered; he convinces his fellow back-of-the-store peers they’re capable of more than just “moving boxes,” and, instead of doing their jobs, they spend the afternoon relaxing and appreciating each other — while the store floods. Once they finally go back inside and discover the catastrophe, it’s too late. The clean-up is being handled. There’s nothing for them to do.
“I just wanted you to understand that we are all better than–” Jonah says during his pseudo-apology. But Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi), who was part of the backroom team, cuts him off. “That’s the thing,” she says. “I’m not better than the work.”
The lingering implication is that Jonah isn’t either, even if he acts like he is, but “Superstore” has more to say than that. For six excellent seasons, Justin Spitzer’s NBC sitcom has detailed the space between dreams and reality, between the vision we have for our careers and the work we actually do. Its ending, via Thursday night’s two-part season finale, will presumably answer the long-lingering question of what happens to Jonah. One of the ensemble comedy’s ostensible leads, “Superstore” could form a nice arc by starting with Jonah’s arrival at Cloud 9 and ending with his exit. But where will he go? And perhaps more significantly, where will they all go?
The series finale comes at a time when even the Sandras of the world, who already value the jobs they have and do them well, are on shaky ground. The labor force is shifting. The future is uncertain. Some people, like Jonah, are asking if they can afford to go after their dream job, or even bank on a specific career. Others are wondering if they can count on the jobs they relied on before in a post-pandemic world.
“Superstore” doesn’t pretend to know what’s next, but that doesn’t mean it’s short on ideas — or lessons. The series aired amid particularly trying times, be it four years of the Trump administration or the ongoing pandemic, and Justin Spitzer’s NBC sitcom has dialed in on issues affecting its working-class characters throughout. When Amy (America Ferrara) is told she’s lost her maternity leave after being suspended, she doesn’t miraculously convince corporate that its policies are unfair and illogical; she goes back to work, with the help of her co-workers. When Mateo (Nico Santos) is finally outed as an undocumented immigrant, he doesn’t conveniently discover a get-out-of-jail-free-card so he can keep working at Cloud 9; he’s detained by ICE and only gets back to work off the books. And in perhaps the most relevant plot line to workers’ rights, “Superstore” dedicated a season to emphasizing the benefits of unionizing without betraying the difficulty of actually going through with it.
By honestly addressing the continued mistreatment of people who help us get groceries, find the right car part, or pick out a holiday gift, the series helps magnify and personalize issues that could otherwise get lost in a bureaucratic haze, and it does so using a different tactic than its workplace sitcom predecessor, “The Office.” In theory, one hands off its story to the other: Dunder Mifflin was the small business eaten up by big box stores, and Cloud 9 is the big box store now being challenged by tech giants like Amazon. Both focused on the workers on the ground, both are built around one sane romantic couple amid the office circus, and both show the struggle of doing work that’s often unrewarding and more often unrewarded.
But “The Office” was about a specific store’s survival, along with its employees, while the scope of “Superstore” is so much bigger. Cloud 9 is a national brand, and what Jonah, Amy, and the rest of the Ozark-Highlands’ branch are fighting for affects a much broader group of workers. Healthcare, fair wages, job security, and more workers rights issues addressed in the series are at the heart of how America’s workforce thrives or dies from here on out.
The pandemic only expedited and exacerbated these concerns. Essential workers were given that lofty designation in the early days of the pandemic, but were rarely decorated accordingly for their sacrifice. Companies, feeling the financial crunch, leaned on their floor workers in order to stay open. Again, “Superstore” tackled this subject head-on at the start of Season 6. Employees worked without sufficient PPE, as Zephra ignored their requests and pushed them to keep the store open. Dina and Glenn (Mark McKinney), who are typically loyal to corporate, struggled meshing their essential worker designation with the lack of respect, care, and attention provided in return.
Meanwhile, Season 6 has also steadily pushed Jonah closer to figuring out what he really wants to do. The business school drop-out was always at the forefront of helping his Cloud 9 team move forward, whether it was pushing for common sense in-store policies or fighting corporate greed by unionizing. But he lost his way when Zephra took over and Amy left. Jonah clearly saw himself as someone capable of doing more than stocking shelves and checking out customers, which could have made it hard to justify why he’d stay at Cloud 9 so long. Pushing for the union gave him purpose, as did working alongside the love of his life, but when both disappeared, he was left with big, looming questions. Why was he working there? What did he want to do? Can he afford to do it?
Those are big decisions, to be sure, and they loop back to the broader systemic questions “Superstore” has been wrestling with about the American labor force as a whole. What’s the future look like for people like Jonah, who may want to make a big bet on a new career trajectory but aren’t in the best shape financially to do so? And what about workers like Sandra, Cheyanne, and Dina, who have invested in the jobs they have, ones that may very well disappear without an immediate replacement?
In an odd piece of pop culture timing, “Superstore” acts like a prequel to “Nomadland.” Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-nominated film focuses on Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow who lost her home when the local factory shut down and now lives out of a van, grabbing part-time jobs on the road once her seasonal shift at an Amazon fulfillment center ends. With the “Superstore” finale floating the idea of Cloud 9’s closure, it’s easy to imagine Dina strolling into an Amazon warehouse every morning, packing boxes at rapid speeds, hoping against hope to land a more permanent position. And it would be a pretty funny spinoff to see Glenn set out on the open road — family in tow, gathering around roadside campfires, traveling a perpetual loop through America’s landmarks — if that same idea wasn’t also so deeply tragic.
Still, the Oscar-nominated film and the criminally snubbed sitcom share a similar outlook on the path forward. They both believe in people. Jonah thought he was better than this job. It’s the attitude he brought with him when he first started — telling Amy, “I know, I don’t seem like the kind of person who would work at a place like this” — and it’s the mentality he fell back into when things stopped going his way. But over the course of the series, Jonah learned that no one is better than any job, and the right to work is a human right. Workers are only responsible for doing whatever they can to help. Technically, they’re supposed to help the business, but “Superstore” repeatedly showed that the only way for the business to succeed was if the individual succeeded as well. When Amy lost her maternity leave, when Mateo was detained by ICE, when the pandemic hit, they invested in each other, and persevered.
“Superstore” did the same. It inspired and educated; it made us laugh and cry; it surprised us and gave us exactly what we needed. It invested in people.
That the last decade’s greatest office comedy is ending with America’s workforce at a turning point feels oddly fitting. The American superstore is dying. Offices are abandoned. Some won’t be reopened, and those that are won’t be the same as before. Instinctually, I want “Superstore” to stick around and guide us through this period of unprecedented change, but now is the time to move forward. In 10 years, “Superstore” won’t just be a time capsule of how America used to work; it will have shown us the salvation we’re all searching for is standing right next to us. After these exhausting, trying, maddening six years, we have to hold onto the idea that taking care of each other is vital to progress. Some may have a greater responsibility than others, but we all have a responsibility to our neighbor, at whatever office we end up in next.
“Superstore” airs its series finale Thursday, March 25 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. The full series is available to stream on Hulu.