The team behind NBC's workplace comedy talks to ET about incorporating the pandemic and the emotional 100th episode.
As Superstore returns for its sixth season, the world will look dramatically different for the Cloud 9 employees than it did just several months ago. Faced with COVID-19, new safety protocols and a shift in priorities, the pandemic catapults the gang into the spotlight as essential workers as they navigate uncertainty surrounding the future. With the impending departure of America Ferrera, which takes place in the 100th episode airing Nov. 5, there is a lot of ground to cover in the first two episodes on the NBC workplace comedy.
Incorporating the pandemic into the fabric of Superstore was never in question, showrunners and executive producers Jonathan Green and Gabe Miller explain, seeing how the comedy is grounded in the real world and set at a store that's become the life blood for Americans during the pandemic. The tricky part was how to tackle the ups and downs of the past eight months, including racial injustice and Tiger King (yes, really), while keeping true to the light, kooky tone of Superstore.
"Early on, there was no thought of not involving this pandemic in our show, just because it takes place in the real world and the pandemic is affecting retail workers so much," Green tells ET. "The conversations were really just about, 'OK, how do we want to address this? What do we think the world will even be like by the time we go on the air? And do we want to try to predict that?' There's no way to predict how long this was going to last or that we'd still be in it by the time we air even."
"There were a lot of discussions about how a lot of the more interesting things to explore might be from the early days of the pandemic," he continues. "Our characters going through those moments where you don't really know how bad this is, and how long it's going to last, and dealing with the new procedures in the store. All the uncertainty seemed like it was the most interesting thing to deal with."
The season's first episode opens with several time jumps to chart the passage of time, from the initial first days of the pandemic and going well into the summer. In the early surge, Cloud 9 customers fight over toilet paper while employees, masked up and socially distanced (in a new break room), begin to hoard essentials to comically disastrous results. (It is Cloud 9, after all.)
"We didn't want the whole season to play out in those early months of COVID. That's what led us to doing time jumps in the premiere," Green elaborates, "to see the progression and see our characters going through that stuff that all of us went through. It felt like it would be really relatable and interesting to see."
Adds Miller: "That was definitely our hope, that people would flash back on that. The weirdness and the fog of those months. How quickly things changed, especially for essential workers and how they were considered, looked at and treated. But also just the weird or less serious aspects of it -- just how big a deal Tiger King was for that small period of time because everyone wanted something to focus on, and then how quickly that was over."
Series star Ben Feldman recalled returning to the Superstore set for the first time in over half a year, after production shut down season 5 early -- one episode shy of finishing its full season -- due to the nationwide lockdown in March.
"It was surreal," Feldman, also a producer, tells ET of returning to set. "It was the first time any of us had been back on a set. We all walked off set at the beginning of the pandemic, did nothing and now here we all are. It was the first time the director has been on the set, the crew. It's not like anybody was off doing anything else, so it was a really strange thing to step off set one day and go home, and the very next day it would have been insane for anybody to go anywhere. So we really just jumped right into the deep end of the pandemic, and did not get back out of the pool until this episode. So to be on set doing this, in general, was weird."
"On top of that, to be telling the story of everything that happened while we were gone was doubly surreal and it just felt like a dream, like you're just kind of walking around being like, 'What's real? What's not? I can't tell,'" he says. "You wear a mask to work because you're a human living in America. But then when we get to work, we take off that mask and then put on the costume mask, which is just altogether strange. And so, there was not a minute of it, especially that first episode, that didn't feel bizarre to anybody."
Not having craft services around, a popular Superstore stop for this particular cast over the course of a normal workday (the day's snacks and meals are often the subject of incessant text chains), made it feel doubly real. "There's no food, which really changed the dynamic of our set because we're basically defined by our eating, and there's none of that," Feldman says with a chuckle. "So on a funny level, 'Haha, there's no food. Who are we anymore?' But on an annoying level, by the time it's six hours in, when it's lunchtime, everybody's starving and tired. It creates some strange moods around set, but we adapt. Humans adapt really well."
With the pandemic front and center, producers were forced to rejigger much of the planned season 5 finale, which was meant to close out Ferrera's run as Amy and resolve Amy and Jonah's relationship, in order to reflect the current state of the world. While the fate of Amy and Jonah remained largely intact, they did tweak details in the lead-up to Amy's eventual goodbye in next week's episode, where they address the couple's future head-on.
"The stones of the Amy-Jonah story sort of stayed the same, but other than that most of the episode changed because a lot of it was going to focus on Cheyenne trying to pull off her big birthday party with huge crowds at the store. That was out of the question obviously," Green details. "Even with the Amy and Jonah story, we sort of thought about how the months in between then and now have passed with the pandemic going on and Amy starting to work two jobs, the effects that would have on their relationship story that we tell in 6x02. There were definitely a lot of changes that we made to that episode from the version that we had last season."
If there was a silver lining to come out of this, it's that they were able to have Ferrera for two more episodes instead of one. Her final episode aligned with the series' 100th.
"I'm really glad that those things ended up lining up because it only felt right that America should be part of our 100th episode and celebrating that milestone. We were really excited when we found out we were going to be able to get her for two episodes this season and that she would be able to be part of things," Miller says. "Once we found that out, that that could be her farewell episode, it just became clear: Well, that is going to be the big event of the episode."
"Usually with a 100th episode, you would try to find some big event to center it around. And it was like, this is the big event -- that Amy is leaving," he adds. "It was just a matter of making sure that it wasn't all sad goodbyes and we could balance it with comedy too. Make it feel like our show. You can have very real emotions and balance it out with comedy."
As Feldman hints, the second episode of the season will be emotional as Superstore transitions into a new phase without Ferrera or Amy.
"Yeah, it was intense," he teases, trying not to give too much away about the episode. "There were really intense emotions that her and I were doing, and some of the most serious stuff that we had done in the history of the series. It was an intense week, but fortunately, it wasn't as [intense as] it would have been if it had ended last season because we've had so long to be thinking about 'Goodbye, America,' that by the time it was actually time to say goodbye, it was like, 'All right.'"
Superstore premieres Thursday, Oct. 29 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
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