Superstore Review: America Ferrera's Charming RomCom Needs Fewer Bargain-Brand Punchlines

grade_B-Anyone who has traversed the aisles of a Wal-Mart, Target or Kmart knows there are genuine steals to be found — often pressed up against items you wouldn’t buy with somebody else’s money.

Superstore, NBC’s new America Ferrera-Ben Feldman comedy (sneak-previewing Monday at 10/9c) contains a similar mix of treasures and junk — and its success or failure will probably depend on how much and how quickly you get invested in the potential romance between her wry, put-upon floor manager Amy and his romantic but slightly cocky new hire Jonah.

The action takes place in a St. Louis location of the fictional Cloud 9 discount store — where Amy earns a decent living after 10 years of a grind in which she’s come to realize tomorrow will be the same as today, because today is exactly the same as yesterday. That weariness, however, hasn’t crushed her sense of self-worth — or her sense of humor — qualities Ferrera brings to sparkling life in her first encounter with Jonah. She’s on break and not wearing her blue employee vest — and when he explains how he probably doesn’t seem like “the kind of person who works in a place like this,” Ferrera manages to make us feel Amy’s genuine annoyance at his elitism — and also the enjoyment of being able to toy with a handsome douchebag who hasn’t yet realized he’s going to be working beneath her.

Except, despite eventually comparing her to a prostitute, Jonah really isn’t as bad as his first impression makes him out to be. From their first scene together, Feldman telegraphs Jonah’s instantaneous attraction to Amy, and that familiar excitement of unexpectedly coming face to face with a person who might turn out to be The One.

Whenever the duo are on screen together, Superstore is irresistibly charming. In Episode 2 (airing immediately after the pilot), Amy and her boss Glenn (Mark McKinney) mercilessly mock Jonah’s dreaminess — declaring him the product of an unholy union between a Panda bear and a Disney princess. Later, when Amy and her coworkers review surveillance footage of Jonah making out with a comely Cloud 9 in-house magazine reporter (Eliza Coupe), her giddy declaration that the woman was digging for all the good ideas inside of Jonah results in the biggest laugh of the series’ opening hour.

Moments later, however, Superstore stumbles so heavily, it drops most of the good will it’s built up. After HR manager Dina (Lauren Ash) — who’s also crushing on Jonah — declares that he’s been the victim of sexual assault, she insists that he hug it out in front of the entire Cloud 9 staff. “Sorry about the rape, dude!” chimes in one teasing coworker — and it’s a tonal shift so jarring, you might wind up feeling like the show’s writers filled you up with fried dough, then tricked you into getting on the Tilt-a-Whirl.

The sexual assault interlude is indicative of Superstore‘s biggest failing — its insistence on hitting gimmicky sitcom beats at which it’s not particularly adept. (For example, Jonah’s accidental markdown of everything in the electronics department leads to an overly long and in no way original stampede of crazed shoppers. Oh, and it ends in “comic” gunfire.)

I’m hoping Superstore lasts long enough that its writers begin to feel less reliant on jokey situations and trust that there’s more than enough organic humor to be found just by letting their characters live in the peculiar, seldom-seen world they’ve created. As Jonah points out, sometimes you have to look for “moments of beauty in the every day” — and better still, as Amy reminds us, sometimes you’ve got to mock a guy for peppering his conversation with such flowery ridiculousness.

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