Toilet paper fights? They’re fine for rambunctious little four-year-olds, but in the age of COVID-19, some more “mature” players have been joining in. Since March, everyday household items like toilet paper and Clorox wipes have been flying off of store shelves due to pandemic-induced demand, and it’s no longer surprising to see grown adults wrestle each other to the ground over a pack of Cottonelle. The season 6 premiere of NBC sitcom “Superstore” captures the frenzy, fear and spirit of working at a big box store during a global pandemic, stocking shelves, keeping aisles clean and breaking up fights, all while being conscientious of personal health and safety. Glamorous.
The show centers around the employees of Cloud 9, a Walmart-like megastore, and their daily lives and encounters with customers. The season 6 premiere picks up right where it finished in its pre-quarantine plotline, with Cloud 9 having been recently acquired by a large tech company. Within the first few minutes of the episode, the workers learn about the growing severity and rapid spread of the virus, and how that will affect their store. Customers demolish their inventory of toilet paper, bottled water and canned foods, and the employees begin to stash some of these items for themselves in a secret hiding spot.
Meanwhile, store manager Amy Sosa, played by America Ferrera, works to get corporate leaders to send employees proper personal protective equipment. The episode gives us a look at workers’ exhaustion, customers refusing to wear masks and the overall hysteria that comes with a retail job in this specific moment in history. A lot is dealt with in a short 20 minutes, but the writers still manage to maintain the show’s trademark optimism and humor.
My “Superstore” superfan status is rooted in my appreciation for the show’s ability to balance real-world issues and current events with comedy. While I have never been employed at a superstore in the midst of a global pandemic, the characters still experience the same feelings of anxiety, frustration, ignorance and fear for the health of Tom and Rita Hanks that I and many others have felt at some point in these past few months. The “it’ll all be over in a few weeks” mentality that the characters undergo mid-episode is exactly what I convinced myself of as I placed my 112th loaf of quarantine bread in the oven. There is something comforting about watching my experiences reflected similarly on television, less akin to the comfort of an embrace and more to knowing that your friend felt equally as terrible about that Econ midterm as you did.
While this episode skewed a bit more toward the serious side, it shows us that we are not alone in feeling overwhelmed and worried, and served as a good reminder to appreciate America’s essential workers — the real superheroes — without whom we would not be able to survive this pandemic. Imagining a world without them entails toilet paper fights that rage on into the night and perpetually vacant shelves.
I’m interested to see how other television shows will incorporate COVID-19 into their worlds. Robb Chavis ‘98, Duke alumnus, co-executive producer and writer for ABC sitcom “Blackish,” explained during DEMAN Weekend-ish that, while “Blackish” will address COVID-19 briefly, the show will carry on as usual to provide a sense of normalcy and escapism for their viewers.
I definitely understand this rationale. After a long day of Zoom classes and virtual meetings, I’m not always craving a recap of the global pandemic that I am experiencing in real-time. The premise of “Superstore,” though, is unique in that it cannot truly reflect the current events and real-world issues pertaining to its subjects and premise without incorporating the coronavirus into its storyline. I’m curious to see how prevalent of a role the pandemic will play throughout the rest of the season.
Because of “Superstore”, I have a greater appreciation for the people behind the scenes who work the register, deal with rebellious customers and restock that precious, precious toilet paper. This season premiere established a strong expectation for integrating COVID-19 into television plotlines and worlds. I recommend this show to anybody looking for a relatable laugh and a gentle jolt of reality.