January 21, 2021

Superstore: "Hair Care Products"

When scripted TV returned to production in the midst of COVID-19, writers and showrunners had two choices: continue with their story as if the pandemic never happened, or incorporate it into the plot. I have preferred the former. If ever there was a time for escapist TV, this is it. To say nothing of the ever changing experience of the pandemic. As EW's James Hibberd put it, "Nobody can correctly make an authentic drama about this pandemic right now. It’s been noted many times before that you cannot make a great movie about a war until years after the war has ended.” Can the experience be accurately fictionalized when it has not yet been fully lived?

Mateo and Cheyenne watch the ceremonial
unlocking of the hair care case. 
Source: tvfanatic.com
Superstore opted to try to find out. In the season 6 premiere, the titular Cloud 9 Superstore is facing the same pandemic the viewers are, and the episode drags as a result. The premiere also prolonged the exit of series lead America Ferrera, a departure which would have been tidier as the season 5 finale. By its title, the second episode of season 6 is actually the second half of the season 5 finale, but the COVID-themed opener "Essential" interrupted the two. In these first few episodes, there are jokes about mask wearing and about who might be contagious, but nothing about it feels unique to the show or even relatable to the viewer, despite the similarity to our own lives. Maybe it's because we've heard those jokes. We've made these jokes. The show is just slapping a mask on a cardboard cutout mascot. 

So imagine my surprise when the fifth episode of the season, "Hair Care Products" finally delivers a snapshot of COVID that feels true to life with a punchline that's true to the show. The B plot of the episode sees Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura) and Mateo (Nico Santos), the break room's popular crowd, decide to do something "so nice" for the less popular Sandra (Kaliko Kauahi) and invite her to their upcoming movie night. Sandra politely declines. When pressed, she reveals she's not comfortable with Mateo and Cheyenne's loose adherence to COVID guidelines. It feels like a real conversation. Heck, you've probably been on one side or the other of that same conversation. But unlike earlier jokes in the season where the punchline was just, "Oh no! He's contagious," the humor here is in watching Mateo and Cheyenne bend over backward to accommodate the one person they didn't intend to invite in the first place.

Earlier seasons of the show tackled timely and heavy topics like parental leave, PTSD, and even an ICE raid. It comes as no surprise that they'd try to tackle COVID. The pandemic isn't even the heaviest or timeliest topic in this episode. The A plot sees Garrett (Colton Dunn) begrudgingly lead the employees in developing anti-racist policy suggestions for corporate. And if that feels like way too big a task for a single retail store to handle, it's because it is. And fortunately, Superstore knows that. When corporate decides to reverse the policy on keeping Black hair care products in a locked cabinet, white characters' responses are mostly tone deaf. Meanwhile, Garrett is eager to point out the puniness of the change, but is frustrated when asked to speak and lead on behalf of all Black people. "It's not my job to call out every racist thing I come up against," he says. "It's my job to announce sales and pretend not to notice when people return used swimsuits." 

I'm glad to see that Superstore is back to its solid formula of addressing real world issues in their own little big box store, with their signature character-based humor. If the rest of Season 6 proceeds like this, I'll keep tuning in.

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