Over the course of its fourth season, Superstore transformed itself into something special; what was once a pleasant, mostly unassuming ensemble comedy shifted its tone into something rather radical for the network comedy space. Like Mom on CBS, or The Carmichael Show a few years back, Superstore used its comedy to explore fundamental conflicts of modern society; specifically, the rights of workers in an increasingly corporate, automated world.
[“Cloud 9” is] a true moment of distinction in Superstore‘s growing legacy, another reminder of just how goddamn bold, fearless, and downright effective the comedy is.
This led to a number of meaningfully radical arcs through the season: paternity leave, fair wages, corporate nepotism, and the desperate marketing tactics of big-box stores in the Age of Amazon were all major focal points of Superstore‘s fourth. And it concluded with its biggest creative (and sociopolitical) swing yet; following an extended arc where Cloud 9 workers considered forming a union, “Employee Appreciation Day,” the season finale, saw beloved sass-master Mateo arrested during a union-busting ICE raid at the store, ending with the entire staff watching poor, frightened Mateo driven away in the backseat of an ICE vehicle.
It was a heartbreaking moment, striking display of levity by a comedy already putting its neck on the line by being a network comedy with an actual point of view. The weight of Mateo’s imprisonment is undeniable; it looms large over the fifth season premiere, “Cloud 9.0,” which picks up a mere three hours after his arrest, with the workers of Cloud 9 reeling from the dramatic events of the day at a candlelight vigil for their co-worker. After a rousing rendition of the Pizza Rolls theme song (“pizza in the morning, pizza in the evening…” 90’s kids get it), “Cloud 9.0” observes the ripple effect of the season finale as it reverberates through the store – and in the process, firmly establishes itself as the greatest network comedy airing in 2019.
In a genius move, “Cloud 9.0” accomplishes this through two of its most outlandish characters; Dina and Cheyenne both go through painful stages of denial throughout the season premiere, which help ground the ripped-from-the-headlines nature of Mateo’s experience as an undocumented immigrant caught in the horrific nightmare of detainment. Dina and Cheyenne are both characters that have enjoyed emotional arcs through the series, but their presences are often comedic by definition: Cheyenne fills the space between scenes with hilariously mindless asides, and Dina fantastically fills the role of quasi-antagonist for everyone, the Dwight Schrute that you actually have to take seriously (because Dina don’t give a fuck).
Watching Dina scold herself for not being able to guide Mateo away from ICE is quietly strong; though she’s in the right to continue being angry at Garrett (for letting her birds die and lying about it), seeing her project her disappointment in herself onto him is not something “Cloud 9.0” takes lightly, even though she never fully lets her tough facade fall away. Just seeing cracks in the foundation are enough; it is a testament to Jackie Clarke’s script (she also directed the season premiere) and Lauren Ash’s performance alike that it all just works, and Dina’s acerbic ways can give voice to the pain she’s feeling over letting a friend down.
Cheyenne’s arc through “Cloud 9.0” is the obvious highlight; while Glenn is off being tortured by a robot Glen (another wonderful commentary on the increased automation of retail work), Amy is trying to help Cheyenne come to terms with the loss of her best friend. Amy and Cheyenne, after all, were the only people with Mateo the moment he got arrested; and given that Amy’s always taken a big sister-like role with the eternally clueless Cheyenne, it’s only natural to see Amy try to coax Cheyenne into visiting Mateo at the facility where he’s being held.
Nichole Bloom, whose always done fantastic work as Cheyenne (even when the role thins out a bit for comedic purposes), is absolutely stunning in the second half of “Cloud 9.0”; after flipping out on a customer for taking a product off the last display Mateo set up at the store, Amy tries to convince Cheyenne to finally go visit her gossip buddy. Her hesitance and fear speak volumes; both at the intimidation of visiting a loved one in such a depressing situation, and at how responsible the horrific actions of government officials can affect people on a fundamental level. Cheyenne feels, on some level, that she’s failed her closest friend: she couldn’t get him out, and now, is afraid to even go visit him (at one point, she tells Amy about how sad she was visiting her mother in prison, and how she would blame Cheyenne for making the visits depressing affairs).
Watching Cheyenne struggle with the loss of Mateo – and once she eventually sees him, forcing herself to try and attempt some sense of normalcy in a very fucked up situation – is deeply moving, a potent scene full of cogent observations and some powerful, quiet moments as Amy watches Mateo and Cheyenne try to make jokes through a thick plane of glass. It’s fucking depressing, but an important scene, a true moment of distinction for Superstore‘s growing legacy, another reminder of just how goddamn bold and fearless the comedy is.
It’s important to note that through all this, “Cloud 9.0” doesn’t forget to be a comedy; Sandra can’t find anyone who’ll listen to her engagement story, and the utterly ridiculous existence of Marcus continues, as he tries to plan a break-in of the ICE facility (“we’re going to go in at night, when everyone is going to be asleep!”). That balance is important; it keeps Superstore‘s balance in check, giving room for sociopolitical reflection, without feeling self-indulgent or preachy in the process.
Even through its heaviest moments, Superstore never forgets it is a sitcom; it seems like a simple thing, but cannot be understated in how integral it is (I mean, did you see the first few episodes of the Will & Grace reboot?). But this balance allows Superstore to take a story like Amy becoming store manager, and utilize as both an avenue for comedy, and for the increasing chasm it forms between her and her colleagues, once she’s their superior and begins enjoying the (much larger) paycheck. Superstore finds the humor in her attempts to establish her authority, and finally attaining some semblance of financial security in her life – and also observes her slide towards defending Cloud 9’s executives against Jonah’s push towards unionization (a movement that begins when Cloud 9 begins cutting hours in attempts to save costs, and reduce the benefits they provide to their minimum-wage employees).
It also avoids the “both-sides”-ism many moderate comedies try to seek when superficially criticizing aspects of the world; Superstore makes no qualms about condemning the corporate approach, and the inhumanity forced upon the most marginalized communities of America by their endless greed. It’s a tightrope act to walk, but Superstore manages it quite simply; it’s just honest about the dichotomy between trying to maintain some sense of morality and community, and trying to survive in a divisive world under the boot of the 1%. Amy should’ve taken the job to become manager; but the effects of that decision are unavoidable, intriguing debates Superstore never shies away from, even when expressing its most integral philosophies about humanity and capitalism.
There’s really no telling where it goes from here; you could tell me season six (please let this show run for a long time, NBC) takes place with everyone working in a warehouse for internet orders, and I’d completely believe it – it could also end with Cloud 9 getting bought out, and the Superstore employees left jobless in an economy that demands college degrees and 5+ years of specialized experience for nearly any position. I’d still watch it either way; Superstore‘s only gotten better through its 78-episode run, and it doesn’t appear to be peaking anytime soon (plus, now it has a cranky, possibly semi-sentient cleaning robot running around – who wouldn’t want to watch that?). One thing is for certain; Superstore is the great pro-union comedy of this era, a remarkable accomplishment of comedy, character, and satire unlike anything else on TV.
I’m sad this piece is publishing alongside the news of Linda Porter’s passing. Superstore will miss her Myrtle greatly – she was as foundational a piece to the show’s thoughts on worker’s rights as anyone.
Glen Robot stands to fill the Mail Robot-sized hole in my heart (there’s even a reference to The Americans right after the robot first appears, a sign this show hits way too many of my personal buttons).
I love how season four pitted Amy and Jonah against each other, as Jonah tried to form a union at the store – but their relationship remained intact and healthy the whole time. Now that they’re working on the same “fuck corporate” team, I can’t wait to see the conflicts bound to brew in their relationship.
Best “new” tagline from Cloud 9: “Bot It At Cloud 9”
Glenn, referring to Glen: “Get him, Cheyenne, he’s after my wife!”
Admittedly, the four scenarios in the 4 Mateos plan were thoughtfully ranked.
The best Marcus line in this episode is either “it’s cool… you know, like Tosh.0” or “it’s chunkier than I thought”… your choice.