Outgoing showrunner Justin Spitzer talks to ET about how Thursday's season closer affects the comedy moving forward.
Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched Thursday's season four finale of Superstore, titled "Employee Appreciation Day."
Well, things sure got complicated on Superstore.
On Thursday's season finale, the Cloud 9 crew experienced one of their most personal conflicts over the last four seasons, when one of their own, Mateo (Nico Santos), whose undocumented status has been a series-long question, was detained by ICE with the intention of deportation. It was a departure for Superstore to wrap its season in this fashion, as previous finales focused on more shocking moments (see: the tornado destroying the store in season two, Amy and Jonah's very public sex tape in season three). But this cliffhanger, with the unknowns surrounding Mateo's future and what will happen to him, feels much more significant in its topical nature with the ramifications still unclear.
"We've had this threat of Mateo being found out hanging over him for a long time and we could have just kept that going for the foreseeable future or we could have had him somehow find a way to become documented. But we thought, 'No, let's see what happens when he actually does get detained and now has to deal with it,'" creator and outgoing showrunner Justin Spitzer tells ET. "That is this season's tornado hitting the store. That's not to say the show's going to be dark or it's going to all about Mateo in the future, but I think that's sort of what we do."
So what happens to Mateo now? Where does this leave the rest of Cloud 9? How do they "fix" this? ET spoke with Spitzer about the decision to revisit Mateo's immigration arc to close out the season, what creative challenges it presents for season five and whether Amy (America Ferrera) and Jonah (Ben Feldman) are actually thinking about having a baby together.
ET: This is quite a different finale for Superstore in terms of the "cliffhanger" here. In past finales there was the tornado that destroyed Cloud 9 and Amy and Jonah's very public sex tape. Tonight's finale felt more topical and personal. What went into the decision behind making this more focused around ICE, immigration and Mateo's fate?
Justin Spitzer: It was an arc and a move that we talked about doing for a long time. At the beginning of the season we'd originally planned on doing it mid-to-late in the season, but dealing with the fallout of it immediately. We didn't set this in mind to do as the finale. And then, for one reason or another, things got pushed and it didn't feel like we were at a place yet where we could to do it midseason. We debated putting it off until future seasons. There was a lot of questions about whether we wanted to deal with the beginning of this union arc at the same time we were dealing with this [and] how they would go together, and America [Ferrera] was very encouraging about doing this now. It felt topical. It felt like the right time. It felt like we'd earned it in our various characters' arcs.
This presents a unique challenge moving forward creatively when the show returns for season five. What are those those potential challenges going to be with how Mateo's undocumented status affects Cloud 9 and its employees?
I'm not going to be back running the show next year, so I can't say for sure what [new showrunners Gabe Miller and Jonathan Green] are going to be. In terms of Mateo's arc, or the part about him being undocumented, it felt like we'd done a number of stories about him trying to hide it and him keeping this secret or it being an obstacle towards him doing something he wanted to do. It felt natural that we would take the next step and find something else to do with it.
You can't exactly resolve this cliffhanger in an episode, I would imagine. What do you think that means for the characters moving forward? Do you have a broad idea that you've shared with the new showrunners about the direction you'd like to see in resolving it?
It's not like he's being detained and taken immediately to the airport and put on a plane. He's not deported or anything like that, but it's not something that's going to be solved in an episode or really at all. It's a new dynamic for him. He's now someone who the government has been alerted about his status. Cloud 9 will have been alerted about his status, I'd imagine. We're not writing him off the show or anything, but just like any undocumented person who's detained, it becomes a new part of life, presenting new challenges they have to contend with going forward.
What did you do to make sure you were still presenting this story in an accurate way but with the signature Superstore laughs? How did you balance the drama with the humor?
We wanted to try to be as accurate as possible and that involved talking to Define American, which is a advocacy group we talk to a lot that helps us with issues about undocumented people, ranging all the way to calling up someone in public relations at [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] or the Department of Homeland Security to try to be as accurate as possible and not make it feel like it was a S.W.A.T. team descending on them. In terms of trying to find a way to make it funny, that's always the challenge. If you're trying to find comedy in such a traumatic issue, there's the risk that it may fall flat and not be funny at all. And you don't know if it's going to work until you've done it. You have to believe in the show, your staff and your cast that we will find some way to make this both funny and real.
The finale ends on Jonah declaring, "We have to fight this," without having the answer to how. And Amy responds with "Want to start a union?" How does Mateo's lockup invigorate the Cloud 9 staff moving forward?
Unions can't single-handedly interfere with the government and stop a deportation, but they can advocate for workers' rights and it's also a way of sticking their nose at [Cloud 9]. This is the catalyst for revolution going forward. In terms of affirmative action, over an arc, I could see that being part of next season. In terms of Mateo, that's something Mateo will have to deal with and our employees too. It's a family and they'll gather around him and do whatever they can to help. It changes things for him. It changes things for everyone.
Moving off the Mateo storyline, Amy makes a throw-away comment that she doesn't want kids, which surprises Jonah, who seems to be open to the idea to having a baby. Was that a seed you wanted to plant?
I wouldn't be shocked if that issue came up next year, but my intention wasn't to start anything real from that line. That was just in the moment. She's trying to say, "Hey, this isn't even about me. I'm not thinking about myself. This is about all of us." And Jonah sees it as that moment.
It was a nice surprise to see Kelly come back. What did you want to accomplish with her coming back into the fold?
I didn't bring her in intending to create any real complications between Jonah and Amy. We kind of knew we had to write her out in the third episode of the season. And we loved Kelly. There was a lot debate about whether to keep her around or not. We decided we wanted to explore Jonah and Amy going forward without her always being there. We knew, even at the time, we wanted to find a way to bring her back before the end of the season and this just felt like a way. If they are going to start a union going forward, there's a line early in the episode where Jonah and Amy are arguing about it and Jonah says, "Then we'll call other branches." And Amy says, "Oh, now you're going to start a nationwide movement?" And then Kelly comes in bringing a whole bunch of employees from her new branch. So that may be the beginning of something. Kelly's a link to a whole new pool of employees that they could potentially collaborate with.
Amy and Jonah have been pretty solid in their relationship all season. What was been the most gratifying thing in having them work through various problems that have come up while having them maintain solid footing? Could they continue to be that way in the new season?
I don't know for next season. I think it's totally possible they could have challenges in the future. I don't know that they'll always stay together or not. The funniest thing is that we could continue to have them bicker and have this -- I wouldn't even call it love-hate -- but occasionally having a relationship with animosity. And that wouldn't be affected just because they're not dating each other. That part, I think, is the most gratifying -- that I don't think it's become dull or not fun.
I also have to throw in a Sandra and Jerry question here because there's a proposal! Do you personally want to see them walk down the aisle?
I would like to see it happen. Sandra's due for some happiness. We had Jerry propose in the season three finale and ended up cutting it for various reasons, and hadn't even intended to have the proposal in this episode. And then on set I said, "Well, let's try it, maybe we'll want to put it in." And I like how it turned out. I like how while Mateo is running from the agents at the same time Sandra's having one of the best moments of her life. We kick Sandra around a lot, but she deserves a happy ending.
Were there other storylines you wanted to explore this season that you couldn't or that played out differently than you had imagined?
One thing I wish we'd had a little more time to do was have a little more tension between Jonah and Amy over more episodes with their new power dynamic. That was our thought early on is we'd get Amy into the manager's chair, Jonah's [not thrilled about it]. What happens when neither character is wrong, but they are on different sides of the issue and they're also dating? How do they deal with that? Just for time, by the time we got there, we only had time to deal with it at the end of [episode] 21 and the first half of [the finale]. So I wish we'd done a little more of that.
Superstore returns Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT this fall on NBC.
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