Friday, August 19, 2016

REVIEW: 'Superstore' - Amy Meets Her Idol While Glenn Learns More About the Olympic Symbol in 'Olympics'

NBC's Superstore - Episode 2.00 "Olympics"

A Cloud 9 Olympics promotion gives Amy the chance to meet her childhood hero, gold medal-winning gymnast Missy Jones (Cecily Strong), who proves to be a little too inspirational. Storewide "Olympic fever" causes Glenn to have some difficulty balancing his extreme patriotism. Jonah learns a secret about Mateo's past. Dina strives to create a "closing ceremony" her colleagues will never forget.

I wasn't a huge fan of Superstore at the start of its first season. Those first few episodes were really rough. They built these characters and this universe in some pretty broad strokes without offering any kind of true depth that made it interesting to watch. It wasn't until I revisited the season in preparation for tonight's Olympics-themed episode that I realized the show had improved significantly. That first season was a great showcase of a show slowly but surely finding its creative and comedic voice. The character work got better but more importantly the interactions amongst the ensemble were vastly more inspired and funny. The show found its voice. And now, Superstore is well-poised to truly break out in its second year. It didn't seem like NBC had much confidence in the show in the beginning either. It aired as a midseason bridge between Voice cycles. Plus, NBC doesn't really know how to develop and nurture comedies nowadays. Everything that sorta breaks out for them is almost by accident. That's certainly how Superstore started. But now, NBC knows what it has. It's giving this show an Olympic showcase in the hopes that it can be the new face of its comedy brand.

The goal of "Olympics" is to appeal to as broad an audience as possible so that more people will turn in for the second season premiere on September 22. That could have been potentially troubling though. When the show goes broad, it can be really lackluster. It's at its best when it delves into the specifics of the characters and their worlds. Plus, this episode is technically set before the first season finale which ended with the entire staff minus Dina going on strike. That would have been too alienating a setup for any new viewers watching the show for the first time here. So instead, it's a normal episode of the show with the co-workers going about their days at Cloud 9 while managing multiple problems. That has been such a strong setup for a series. And yet, the character dynamics of "Olympics" reverted back to some of those earlier and not so special character pairings and motivations. Amy and Cheyenne's relationship evolved past the basic idea of Amy needing to micro-manage Cheyenne's pregnancy because Cheyenne is a mirror image of her. Once it moved beyond that basic understanding of the characters, it was great. But here, the main story is just a little too simple and straight-forward to really work at all.

So, Amy becomes starstruck by one of her idols, Olympic gold-medal gymnast Missy Jones. It's not a case where she immediately regrets meeting her idol either. That would have been a simple and predictable plot to tell. Instead the show makes the different choice of having Missy's ability to inspire anyone backfire completely on Amy. Missy can get away with proclaiming generic inspirational quotes to people. She can do that because she won a gold medal at age 16. That's what makes her special. She may not like talking about those days of competition to anyone who asks. It's pretty humorous when Dina wants to know if the Olympic village is just one big sex event for three weeks. But the episode really isn't about Missy. She comes in and out of the store very quickly. She pops up to set up the conflict between Amy and Cheyenne. And then, she just disappears to let Amy handle the mess that's been created. Amy really believes Cheyenne when she says she's going to become an Olympic gymnast. It's just part of her nature to take everything seriously all that time because she needs to be the responsible one. The specifics of the story beats don't really allow for many big laughs though. It's building to the heart-warming moment where Cheyenne knows her dream isn't realistic. But that lesson hardly feels like a victory. It just showcases just how real the emotions and the characters' lives are. Amy doesn't feel good about telling Cheyenne to give up on her dreams. That's not the message she wants to deliver to anyone. But it's what needed to be done because they have to accept their realities.

Of course, this minor moment of human connection embracing the mundane details of life is then thrown away by the completely over-the-top closing ceremony Dina is about to put together. The comedic structure of this storyline is very familiar as well. Dina spends the whole day struggling to put this celebration together. She's only doing so to one-up Glenn to show him just how lame he has been over the past few weeks. But she struggles pulling things together because she wants it to be just like a real Olympic closing ceremony. Her co-workers aren't talented enough to actually pull that off though. Nor does she give any of them the time to actually showcase their talents. Sandra can literally remember every detail about her life. But that memory only means she can't forget all of the horrible things her fellow co-workers have said and done to her over the years. And yet, somehow Dina is able to pull off an extravagant closing ceremony. She defies the odds to put on quite the show. It shows that dreams can sometimes be obtainable. Sure, the co-workers won't be able to go to the moon or nail Scarlett Johansson. But they were able to share in this wonderful moment together united as a store. Dina was using it as an insult to Glenn. It also showcased just how wonderful this workplace and the people can actually be.

Glenn's relentless optimism means he doesn't understand the mean-spirited nature of Dina's actions. But nevertheless, they brought the store together. That's the lesson that Glenn had to learn. He uses the Olympics to shout his patriotism loud for everyone to hear. He believes it's the time to proclaim that America is the best. He just accepts that as a fact of life. He doesn't know want to say when that statement is contested by his employees. He doesn't understand how anyone could view it any other way. He doesn't believe that out of malice or judgment either. He just loves this country so much that it blinds him a little bit. It's up to Mateo and Jonah to show him the true symbolism behind the Olympics. Sure, parts of Mateo's story here feel like the show laying the groundwork for an important detail in the second season. He realizes that he is not actually an American citizen. His family has been lying to him for years. It's not until Jonah questions Mateo's beliefs about the system that he comes to that realization. Jonah has a number of eye-opening moments as well. He explains that the Olympic rings are a symbol of uniting all the countries of the world together for one event to Glenn. Of course, he fails just as much as Amy does in getting Cheyenne to see the error of her dream cards. So, he's not completely right about everything all the time. He still comes across as the comedic straight man in a lot of these stories though.

Overall though, "Olympics" is a solid enough episode that could really appeal to a lot of viewers who had no familiarity with the show. It does a solid job of letting the characters be themselves without having to spend so much time actually introducing them. It lets their actions speak for themselves. That makes this better than any comedy pilot usually is. NBC hasn't had much success in getting Olympic preview audiences to actually stick with its fall shows though. Remember four years ago when Go On and Animal Practice got previews following the games? Both of those shows were cancelled after one season. Superstore is slightly different because it already has a core audience. NBC is now trying to expand that so it can rebuild its comedy brand. This episode probably won't alienate anyone and could actually prove beneficial to the show. Now, it's just wait and see until the season premiere to know if it has any effect on the overall ratings. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Olympics" was written by Jonathan Green and directed by Ruben Fleischer.
  • The cutaways to what Cloud 9 shoppers are doing at any moment in the store have always been a reliable running joke throughout most episodes. Here, the show has even more fun with it by getting some Olympians to cameo in those moments. That includes Tara Lipinski not slipping on a wet floor, Apolo Anton Ohno struggling to get past an old lady with a cart and McKayla Maroney delivering her famous judgmental face in the mirror.
  • Glenn's opening ceremony is such a disaster. He makes such a big deal about it. He has a parade for all of the departments. And yet, it ends with Myrtle lighting a pile of paper products on fire. It's a really solid and funny opening.
  • Garrett was pulling Dina back into reality with all of her outrageous closing ceremony ideas. He ultimately gave up after it was no longer fun for him. But it's hilarious when he tries to take some of the credit once Dina actually comes through with her promises.
  • Mateo actually goes to Glenn to tell him about his newfound illegal status. And yet, Glenn has no clue what Mateo's trying to say. He just takes it as a way to show his newfound appreciation for all of the world's countries.
  • The visual of Cheyenne using some clothing racks to practice a gymnastics routine while pregnant was pretty fantastic.
  • This will more than likely be the highest rated episode the show ever produces - unless it somehow gets to do a post-Super Bowl episode as well. But again, will that have any effect on the regular numbers once the new season begins in September?