Photo: Trae Patton (NBC)

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s staff and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on film and TV. 

It’s frustrating that only the third season of Superstore is readily accessible online and OTT, because even though the show is doing some of its best work this year, newcomers to the workplace comedy don’t get to see the steady climb toward that greatness. They also don’t get to see the kiss between Cloud 9 employees Amy (America Ferrera) and Jonah (Ben Feldman) that put an exclamation point on the show’s second season, though they do get to see surveillance camera footage of it, which has recently surfaced and is now blowing through the character’s personal lives like the cataclysmic weather event that spurred it.

Of course, finally relieving the tension of a will-they/won’t-they relationship at the end of your sophomore year is a strategy cribbed directly from Superstore’s most obvious ancestor, Greg Daniels’ adaptation of The Office. Back when I reviewed the first four episodes of the show, these parallels to creator Justin Spitzer’s old gig were practically all I could see, comparison being a critical crutch that I lean on like I’m Michael Scott with a Foreman-torched foot. (See also: the Friday Night Lights, Glee, How I Met Your Mother, 30 Rock, and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip mentions sprinkled liberally throughout my tepid response to Rise.) But it’s also a simple way for articulating first impressions and providing context for an audience before they’ve been able to see the work being reviewed. Superstore has relied on some of the same archetypes and story beats as The Office, but it’s not like The Office invented the drama of unrequited romance or the humor of an unnecessarily hard-ass second-in-command, either.

I’ll probably never be able to stop seeing these similarities—for example, Jonah and Amy have picked up their own Karen Filipelli in the form recent hire Kelly (Kelly Stables)—but Superstore has also done a lot to establish its own voice and perspective since November of 2015. There’s an unapologetically slapstick streak running through the show, one that’s seemingly keeping a running inventory of all the things that can break, crash, or collapse in a big-box store. (“Safety Training,” which aired last week, made a great running gag out of poorly secured St. Patrick’s Day signage.) The show skirts the fact that the characters wouldn’t realistically share the same work schedule by rotating its supporting players in and out; the regulars are always on the job, but ringers like Jon Barinholtz’s dunderheaded Marcus or Irene White’s vindictive Carol maintain the illusion by coming and going, something that keeps them from wearing out their welcome, too. I’m still holding out hope for an episode in which shifts are scrambled and Superstore introduces its own batch of Bizarros, who are either the sole focus of the episode, or the backup to a regular stranded among strangers.

Nico Santos as Mateo (left), Michael Bunin as Jeff
Photo: Colleen Hayes (NBC)

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And alongside the Jonah-Amy roller coaster, Superstore has been running a smaller, less flashy attraction in the form of an ongoing storyline about their coworker Mateo (Nico Santos), who discovered he’s an undocumented worker at the beginning of the second season. The proposed Mexican border wall, DACA, the monstrous and unchecked actions of U.S. Immigration And Customs Enforcement—all are channeling the immigration debate into a notable number of pilot scripts, framing it through metaphor (like The CW’s Roswell reboot, which is moving forward even though Alien Nation is already a movie and a TV show) or familiar properties (like Freeform’s Party Of Five remake). It’s one thing to get viewers to consider and engage with a hot-button topic with the comforting distance of genre; it’s quite another to show the fear of deportation as part of the grounded, lived experience of characters like Mateo or One Day At A Time’s Carmen. Without completely consuming the character—something Santos’ bright-but-prickly performance would never really allow—this information moves his storylines in unique, relevant directions, and complicates his relationship with the store’s district manager, Jeff (Michael Bunin), ultimately leading to their breakup.

When Mateo finally tells his ex that he’s undocumented (at the risk of company-man Jeff reporting it to his bosses), the impact is greater than Jonah and Amy reaching their pre-ordained admission that they have feelings for one another. They, their kiss, and the sitcom complications it causes are the focus of this week’s “Amnesty,” but the episode’s sigh of relief arrives when Jeff shows up in the tag (wearing Jason Bourne’s linen shirt), announcing that he’s chosen love over work. It’s a touching moment—and one that I can’t think of an immediate precedent for.