Unfortunately for NBC, as that decade came to a close, that legacy started drifting out the door. Their decision not to hang onto Fey's "30 Rock" follow-up "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" has paid off for Netflix. NBC Universal produces "Brooklyn Nine-Nine", created by "Parks" co-creator Michael Schur and producer Dan Goor, but it airs on Fox. "Community" was cult-popular but never a ratings smash, eventually migrating to Yahoo! for its final season. It could even be argued that they let "The Mindy Project" get away from them, which was with the network in script stage before going elsewhere. Greg Daniels, who developed "The Office" for American TV and co-created "Parks", is working on something new for the network, but it remains in development. In what invariably seems like a desperate bid to recapture lightning in a bottle, NBC has reverse-engineered "Superstore", another workplace comedy, this one set inside a Walmart-like department store, and the results are dire, an unfunny and mildly embarrassing hybrid of not just "Office" and "Parks", but also the hacky, terminally regressive sitcoms competing network CBS is running (albeit, to great success).
"Superstore" focuses on Amy (America Ferrara), floor manager for a "Cloud 9" department store (the program's fictional chain), and a new employee at that branch, Jonah (Ben Feldman), as he tries to figure out how to get on her good side, and both of them navigate unruly customers, corporate chaos, and a complicated set of colleagues. Among the co-workers are perpetually happy, extremely Christian, deeply neurotic store manager Glenn (Mark McKinney); hard-as-nails assistant manager Dina (Lauren Ash); cool-as-ice, wheelchair-bound PA guy Garrett (Colton Dunn); pregnant makeup counter ditz Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom); and another new employee, cut-throat suck-up Mateo (Nico Santos).
To understand why "Superstore" sucks, one only has to look at why other NBC comedies succeeded. Daniels, whose background includes "The Simpsons", added a subtle cartoon bent to "The Office", which was then pushed forward further with subsequent shows. "Community" often took place in realms of pure fantasy. Each show was anchored by its own level of internal consistency that allowed them to function, not to mention most of their settings (a paper company, television production, local government, a community college) were closed-end places where eccentricity can sensibly spread, and the protagonists were generally placed as sane people in contrast to the madness. "Superstore" takes place in a cartoon world, but there aren't any rules that govern what has consequences and what doesn't. Jonah brings an anatomically correct sex doll to work after Amy continuously pranks him with a mannequin that the staff believes resembles him. Dina physically assaults an elderly customer she suspects is a "secret shopper." Every item in electronics is marked down to 25 cents and nobody gets fired, even though the mistake is temporary. In the world of "Community", this wouldn't be a problem, and "Parks" would find smart solutions to account for big mistakes, but "Superstore" wants to take place in an "Office"-like world where the audience is emotionally invested in Amy and Jonah's hopes and dreams. Without a consistent frame of reference for what stakes are real and what stakes the show will wave away with a line of dialogue in the last few minutes, there's no reason to care about any of it.
Pretty much every other NBC success was also an ensemble, filled with distinctly-drawn characters whose colliding personalities created the comedy. "Superstore" tries to be that, but the failure to settle on a tone and an unwillingness to commit to what the stakes are undermines the ability to craft engaging characters. Amy and Josh, as the most realistic of the bunch, are almost blank slates, with germs of dreams, failed and otherwise, that are no doubt seeds planted that the writers hope to grow in future seasons. All three of the network's big gems had a massive personality at the center of them (Carell, Fey, Poehler), and although "Superstore" lead America Ferrara is certainly talented, she doesn't have the magnetism the role requires. She and Younger are consistently pleasant, while everyone else beams in from different universes. Dunn's Garrett feels more in keeping with Ferrara and Younger's universe, whereas McKinney, Ash, and Santos are broad comic caricatures. In the background, bit players who recur as other members of the store's staff feel like a ploy to generate some Creed Brattons or Stanley Hudsons, and a constant stream of insults directed at one of them (Kaliko Kauahi's Sandra) is an echo of both Toby Flenderson and Jerry "Gerry" Gergich. There's also a bizarre surplus of characters who fall below even that designation -- Cloud 9 seems to have 50 working employees at any given moment, 40 of which are nameless and only seen when convenient.
Still, even those flaws could be overlooked if the writing was inspired, but it's here where "Superstore" is the most disappointing. The melting pot of influences only adds up to a bunch of disparate dots that each script needs to connect, and unfortunately, the electricity animating this Frankenstein's monster is mostly depressingly hacky sitcom premises. Would you guess that the show's first eleven episodes offer up a cheesy sensitivity training video? Sex caught on surveillance cameras? Not one but two major instances of a boss trying to fit in with the "cool" crowd to disastrous results? An episode where they get locked in the store? A competition between the staff members? All of the above are trotted out here, complete with predictable background runners that play out like clockwork, in sets of three. Obviously, there's no mandate that a sitcom should have messages, but "Superstore" mimics a familiar "character growth" structure, yet constantly contradicts itself, particularly in an episode where Cheyenne's white wanna-be MC boyfriend Bo (Johnny Pemberton) tries to expand his horizons by writing a jingle for the store without swearing in it, never figuring out how to reconcile "be true to yourself" with "grow up." Plot-wise, the show also continues to borrow from its influences, introducing a will-they-or-won't-they dynamic between Amy and Jonah in the first episode, and frequently playing humor off of awkward manager/employee relationships.
The one episode of the first season's that kind of works is the finale, "Labor". It should be no surprise that "Labor" is also the one episode with a fairly consistent comic tone throughout, the one where the characters have a strong story to bounce off of, and the one with the most genuine stakes. Admittedly, "The Office" and "Parks" both course-corrected after underwhelming first seasons to become the shows they're remembered as, but there's so much less about "Superstore" that shows promise. Perhaps that's because NBC's other sitcoms, driven by distinct voices and starring distinct personalities, were trying to do something new. Even at its mediocre best, "Superstore" never does more than rely on what came before it as a guideline for where to go next.
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