What it’s like to watch mass-mar­ket tele­vi­sion in 2017


Ni­cholas Hune­brown ex­plores the many joys — and sur­pris­ing pol­i­tics — of the hum­ble net­work sit­com.

IN THE FIRST MONTHS of the Trump pres­i­dency, with news pour­ing out hourly that was more fright­en­ing than a hor­ror show and more ab­surd than the most out­landish come­dies, peo­ple turned on the tele­vi­sion look­ing for a kind of balm — some­thing to numb the pain with­out adding to the sum to­tal of bel­li­cose stu­pid­ity in the world.

My brother-in-law Daniel be­came ad­dicted to Ter­race House, a gen­tle re­al­ity show in which a group of at­trac­tive Ja­panese twen­tysome­things live in the tit­u­lar ter­race house and, as far as I can tell, flirt very sub­tly, try their best to suc­ceed at their jobs, and act with a fun­da­men­tal dig­nity and kind­ness that feels shock­ingly rad­i­cal. “It’s re­ally calm,” Daniel told me, emerg­ing dazed from a binge in which he’d gone through mul­ti­ple sea­sons and be­gun fol­low­ing in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ters on In­sta­gram. “I mean, al­most noth­ing hap­pens.” One friend re­watched the en­tirety of Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion, co­coon­ing her­self in an al­ter­nate uni­verse in which in­tel­li­gence and di­ver­sity are prized at­tributes. An­other blitzed through Project Run­way and found him­self root­ing for the gay Venezue­lan im­mi­grant with a fer­vor that felt bizarrely height­ened — the usual re­al­ity TV clichés about striv­ing im­mi­grants made newly pro­found in 2017.

After a world-shak­ing event like the elec­tion of Trump, there is a temp­ta­tion to re­treat to the safety of our cul­tural tribes. And in an era of peak TV, with more scripted tele­vi­sion than ever be­fore, it would be easy to spend the next four years sub­merged in care­fully crafted Bri­tish minis­eries about mur­ders in small towns or in­ten­tion­ally de­press­ing come­dies about white peo­ple living in the gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bour­hoods of east LA.

But in a time of in­tense po­lar­iza­tion, when no one can agree on ba­sic facts let alone the rel­a­tive mer­its of the lat­est Net­flix show, it felt im­por­tant to check in with the shows that were at least at­tempt­ing to speak to a mass au­di­ence. If you were look­ing for so­lace, why not try the shows ex­plic­itly de­signed to pro­vide dis­trac­tion and com­fort to the largest num­ber of peo­ple pos­si­ble? It felt like a good time to re­visit the net­work sit­com.

TWENTY YEARS AGO, NBC’S Must-see TV dom­i­nated the cul­ture, bring­ing in 25 mil­lion view­ers — from your racist un­cle to the self-pro­claimed an­ar­chist at your high-school — who could all quote the Soup Nazi and share an opin­ion about whether or not Ross and Rachel were on a break. To­day, the an­chor of NBC’S Thurs­day night com­edy slate is a halfhour com­edy set in a big box store that brings in 4 mil­lion view­ers and is rarely part of the cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion.

Su­per­store is a half-hour com­edy cre­ated by Justin Spitzer, a long-time writer on The Of­fice, that tries to do for re­tail work what Spitzer’s old show did for white col­lar drudgery. The show stars Ugly Betty’s Amer­ica Fer­rera as Amy, the com­pe­tent straight-woman to the cast of odd­ball mis­fits work­ing at a Wal­mart like store. The makeshift work fam­ily in­cludes a gay Filipino who finds out he’s an il­le­gal im­mi­grant, a sar­donic Africanamer­i­can in a wheel­chair, and a joc­u­lar bully of an as­sis­tant man­ager played by a white Cana­dian ac­tress (Lau­ren Ash). Some­how the like­able per­for­mances and speci­ficity of each char­ac­ter’s weird­ness pre­vents the en­sem­ble from feel­ing like some box-check­ing ex­er­cise in di­ver­sity.

As a work­place com­edy in which peo­ple with very dif­fer­ent back­grounds and pol­i­tics are forced to in­ter­act, the show is able to touch on po­lit­i­cal ques­tions. In one episode from the sec­ond sea­son, Jonah, a lib­eral Busi­ness School dropout played by Ben Feld­man, re­fuses to sell a cus­tomer a gun, in­sti­gat­ing an open carry demon­stra­tion in the store by gun-tot­ing pro­tes­tors. Mean­while, the evan­gel­i­cal store man­ager (Kids in the Hall’s Mark Mck­in­ney) is ap­palled to learn that his store sells the morn­ing after pill and de­cides to buy out the en­tire stock in protest. When he re­al­izes how much the pills cost, he spends the rest of the episode loi­ter­ing around the phar­macy counter, at­tempt­ing to hawk his supply to cus­tomers who look like they might be sex­u­ally ac­tive.

The show is a broad com­edy, but at a time when TV is dom­i­nated by zom­bies, dragons, and in­ex­pli­ca­bly wealthy fam­i­lies, it might also be one of tele­vi­sion’s more re­al­is­tic por­traits of life un­der late cap­i­tal­ism. In the first sea­son’s fi­nale, the work­ers at­tempt to form a union. In the sea­son two opener they are, pre­dictably, squashed by man­age­ment. The show revels in the ab­sur­dity of life un­der the aus­pices of soul­less cor­po­rate over­lords while mak­ing the very sit­com-y ar­gu­ment that it’s our abil­ity to find laughs and ca­ma­raderie with our fel­low work­ers that makes the job re­deemable.

Su­per­store is funny and sharp. It has like­able char­ac­ters and win­ning per­for­mances. Watch­ing the show in 2017, how­ever, it also feels un­de­ni­ably anachro­nis­tic. To­day, tele­vi­sion ex­ists within the same po­lar­ized world as our pol­i­tics and news. In one stream, you find breath­less paeans to the bril­liance of the Bri­tish im­port Fleabag and HBO’S The Night Of. In the other, the im­mensely pop­u­lar and rarely dis­cussed NCIS and Grey’s Anatomy con­tinue to qui­etly dom­i­nate the rat­ings while be­ing ig­nored by the hot-take in­dus­try of re­cap­pers and pod­cast­ers.

Sit­coms like Su­per­store feel like relics from a time be­fore this po­lar­iza­tion. The fa­mil­iar for­mat of the sit­com — with its joke den­sity, punch-line rhythms, and com­mer­cial act breaks — feels like it’s de­signed to speak to a mass au­di­ence that sim­ply no longer ex­ists. Like the net­work news an­chor who speaks in a stud­iedly neu­tral, down-the-mid­dle voice as the world burns and we get our news from sources that speak to our spe­cific prej­u­dices and anx­i­eties, the sit­com’s voice-for-ev­ery­one ap­proach can sound quaintly ir­rel­e­vant.

In an episode from Su­per­store’s sec­ond sea­son, the store is the site of a polling lo­ca­tion. The bum­bling man­agers in­ad­ver­tently spoil some bal­lots. Amy and Jonah flirt their way through a lit­tle grass­roots or­ga­niz­ing. The un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant tries to find an “I Voted” sticker in or­der to prove he’s a US cit­i­zen. The episode is funny. It’s about the process of pol­i­tics with­out getting ex­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal about the Trump/clin­ton race. In the show’s world, con­ser­va­tives and pro­gres­sives can dis­agree but re­spec­tively co­ex­ist, united by a com­mon de­cency. The fears of il­le­gal im­mi­grants can be played for laughs. Pol­i­tics can be dis­cussed with­out ev­ery­one in the room ex­plod­ing into anger and tears. Watch­ing it in the win­ter of 2017, a few short months after it first aired, the episode feels as fan­tas­ti­cal as an episode of Star Trek, as for­eign as a Ja­panese re­al­ity show.

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