When COVID Becomes the Story
New York magazine|February 1-14, 2021
How Superstore leaned into a pandemic it couldn’t ignore.
By Kathryn VanArendonk

Nico Santos, Ben Feldman, Kaliko Kauahi, and panicked shoppers in an early scene from this season.

THIS PAST MARCH, the people who make Superstore were staring down a series of problems. Some were similar to those facing many American TV shows last spring. “By the time this airs, are we ready to laugh?” Superstore star Ben Feldman recalled wondering. “Or is covid something we expect to see?” But the show had a unique set of challenges, too. While hangout sitcoms and comedies about precocious children do not demand the intrusion of a global health crisis, it’s much harder to ignore covid on a series about frontline workers. “Going escapist just didn’t make sense,” Superstore writer Owen Ellickson told me. “Our characters would be people in a very interesting, tough spot.”

The past few months have given network-TV viewers the chance to witness a huge, inescapable narrative experiment. Every series set in contemporary life had to make a choice about how to deal with the pandemic. Grey’s Anatomy, a medical show, went all in, building the whole season around the crisis. Some justice procedurals, such as Bull and Law & Order: SVU, included indifferent masking and covid protocols but otherwise clung to familiar narrative structures. Several sitcoms, including CBS’s The Unicorn and Bob Hearts Abishola, chose to ignore covid entirely.

Superstore, an NBC sitcom since 2015, was uncannily well suited to the challenge. The workplace comedy follows a group of people who stock shelves and run the registers at a fictional big-box store called Cloud 9. Set in St. Louis, it is a Middle American, “this is what real everyday life is like” kind of show, pulling from the workplace traditions of Cheers and The Office but also from the working-class family-sitcom lineage of Roseanne and The Middle. Superstore has always incorporated a looming awareness of big social and political pressures: The employees have a running unionization effort, and early in the show, a character named Mateo (Nico Santos) realizes that he is undocumented, which leads to an episode where he’s detained by ice. And while its latest real-life story line was not one its writers had planned on having to deal with, covid has made this season unexpectedly poignant. NBC announced in December that the show’s sixth season would be its last; its final episodes will be set during the pandemic.

“It seems crazy, looking back now,” Superstore showrunners Jonathan Green and Gabe Miller told me, “but when we first started thinking about this season, we were assuming we’d be done with covid by the time we started airing in the fall.” When it grew clear that would not be the case, the difficulty of Superstore’s first few episodes became a timeline question: Should the show start from the spring and follow the characters as the reality of covid slowly settled on their lives? Should it skip ahead to the fall?

“I was like, ‘We have to tell every bit of this story,’ ” said Feldman, who plays one of the leads, Jonah, and is also a producer of the show. “I want to see the evolution of this, where we stumbled into this in the beginning, thinking it was nothing, and ended up being married to this completely new life.”

The writers didn’t agree. They felt they had to move quickly through those early months to bring the show closer to the current moment. “We ultimately decided we shouldn’t spend too long on the beginning of the pandemic,” Ellickson explained, “because the whole thing about the pandemic is its constant presence—it’s this shadow in people’s lives.”

“I was wrong,” Feldman conceded, “which is usually the case.”

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