NBC’s Superstore did what lesser shows could only dream of this year by managing to make the plight of essential retail workers hilarious during a global health crisis. The show follows a kooky group of big-box store employees, including one played by Kelly Schumann, a River Forest native and former Wednesday Journal employee. Superstore’s final season ended March 25; its denouement covered the realities of working retail in a pandemic – covering everything from a lack of employee protective equipment to customers stockpiling toilet paper.
“There are real people dealing with these very extraordinary circumstances,” said Schumann, who grew up in Oak Park and River Forest and sold ads at Wednesday Journal.
“If there was ever a chance that I was going to just leave my cart in the parking spot that I was in, I don’t do that anymore.”
Schumann joined the cast of Superstore as a series regular during its second season, playing the character Justine, who struggled to fit in with the more popular employees working at the fictional Cloud 9 store.
Leading up to its final season, Superstore had already successfully depicted healthcare inequality, teen pregnancy, ageism and employee strikes with its signature insightful humor. Schumann credits the show’s writers for not shying away from such difficult topics.
“What I appreciate about being on Superstore and so much of what I love about that show is they’re tackling these things; they’re not pretending these things don’t exist,” said Schumann.
A pivotal scene during its season four finale found Mateo, one of Superstore’s principal characters and an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, detained by officials from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during a workplace raid. ICE was sent in by Cloud 9 corporate offices to quash talks of unionization among store employees.
“When you look at the immigration storyline, you see, real life implications of these very large concepts in our world,” said Schumann.
And Superstore managed to be sidesplittingly funny in the process.
Often overlooked, people working at grocery stores, Walmart and Target were thrust into the nation’s view when COVID-19 hit. Superstore fully tapped into the newfound attention placed on essential retail workers, telling their stories with heartfelt humor. Schumann hopes those who watched the show found a new appreciation for the people it portrays.
“During this pandemic, I hope we all learned that when we call them essential workers, it’s because they’re essential,” she said. “And perhaps they shouldn’t be some of the lowest paid people in society and perhaps they should be given hazard pay and other benefits that people in what we might consider less essential positions are getting.”
Those essential workers include Schumann’s own brother, Jeremy Schumann, who has worked for over 20 years at River Forest’s Jewel-Osco, 7525 W. Lake St.
“I was so proud of him because when the pandemic started, a lot of people rightfully stopped working those types of jobs because it was dangerous,” said Schumann. “He really didn’t want to stop working; he felt this desire to be of service in that way.”
Her brother lives with their parents and ultimately did take a few weeks off of work as a safety precaution.
“When the first wave hit, he took a break because both him and my dad are disabled and so it would have been really dangerous for him to bring it home,” said Schumann.
Once that first wave subsided, Schumann’s brother returned to work and has worked through the pandemic ever since. Schuman told Wednesday Journal her brother has since gotten both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, as have their parents.
Superstore is not just a hysterical workplace comedy with excellent opportunities for product placement, it’s a show critics and fans have come to love for its varied cast of characters. The show portrays people of all shapes, sizes, ages, skin colors, abilities, sexual orientation and religious faith – all without making Superstore feel like NBC was trying to satisfy some sort of diversity requirement.
“I don’t give Superstore a pat on the back for it because I think this is something we all should be doing,” said Schumann.
The way Superstore and diversity intersect is intentional, allowing the attributes of its characters to inform the storytelling just as much as the outside world does. A standout episode from the final season involves addressing society’s systemic racism through reparations in the form of a pizza party for Black employees. The event devolves into something of an inadvertent “All Lives Matter” pizza party.
“I don’t think they set out to tackle ideas like this,” said Schumann of the show’s writers. “I think it’s just inherently something they felt a responsibility to do when you’re dealing with these types of people.”
Had the show been renewed for another season, Schumann would have liked to have seen how Superstore addressed more hot button issues, such as the vaccination effort.
“Whatever major event happens next I will wish that Superstore could cover it.”