How ‘Superstore’ created a legion of superfans
Chloe Rodriguez was scrolling through Instagram when she learned that the cast of her favorite show was coming to Comic-Con. The 18-year-old San Diego native, along with her 14-year-old sister, Lori, excitedly brainstormed ideas for cosplay — costume play, in which fans dress up as beloved characters — and asked their grandmother to drive them to the local Dollar Tree for supplies.
They quickly cut the sleeves off two navy blue T-shirts and carefully painted them with the show’s signature white curves. Once the costumes were dry, the teens tried them on and suddenly resembled the heroic characters they hoped to see in person: the minimum-wage motley crew of NBC’s “Superstore.”
It’s true: a half-hour sitcom — especially one about the employees of a big-box store in St. Louis, Mo. — is not the usual Comic-Con fare. Now in its 50th year, the event invades the San Diego Convention Center and its surrounding Gaslamp Quarter every July with elaborate presentations built around buzzy sci-fi and action properties, along with its original comic book exhibitions. A major highlight is the people-watching: It’s not uncommon for attendees to spend months making ornate costumes, often worthy of standing alongside the professional ensembles of blockbuster franchises.
“This is a show about the most everyday kind of people you could possibly know, and we’re at Comic-Con!” America Ferrera, star and producer of “Superstore,” told The Times. “To be at Comic-Con alongside these big action movies, and to have a fandom that puts on that vest as if it were a superhero outfit, it’s honestly so amazing.”
In its own way, “Superstore” is as courageous as any superhero series. Its satirical story lines and nightmarish, dialogue-free cutaways are dependably entertaining, especially for viewers who’ve ever worked in customer service.
“I worked at a department store and at fast-food counters, and it totally brings me back to all the fun stuff you do with your friends to move the time along on a slow day, like putting on an accent with a straight face while you’re with customers,” said Marilyn Towata, 38, of San Diego. “It’s so cathartic,” adds Jillian Zacharcuk, 24, a Menifee resident employed at Walmart. “I like to watch it after work.”
Alongside its laugh-out-loud moments, though, “Superstore” features unassuming discussions of gun control, abortion, ageism and sexual identity. Its villains are real-world baddies: the country’s broken healthcare system; the inhumane practices of massive conglomerates; the looming threat of deportation that faces undocumented immigrants.
“It deals with real-world issues in a comedic, fair way; no one is preaching or condemning anyone,” explained Anella Lattiner, 39, who took a 16-hour flight from Melbourne, Australia, for the chance to meet the cast. “There’s a lot of shows out there with token characters, but I don’t think that’s the case here at all. Because it’s set in this store, it’s a catchall for everyone of different personalities, nationalities and beliefs, living their everyday lives.”
One reason fans are so ardent may be that the cast often interacts with viewers online; Colton Dunn, who plays a going-through-the-motions employee, regularly polls his Instagram followers from the Universal backlot about which lavish sneakers to wear in a scene, while Ferrera, who plays a newly minted manager, has occasionally changed her onscreen name tag to that of a pleading fan.
So when the cast arrived at the Hard Rock Hotel on Thursday afternoon, they were greeted by a block-length swarm of screaming fans, many decorated in makeshift uniforms. Mel Gundran, 34, of Long Beach, bought his blue polo shirt at Cloud 9’s on-screen competitor, Target. Katalina Garber, 17, drove more than eight hours from Pleasanton with her dad and proudly touted a vest she made with aqua blue piping.
“When somebody is willing to spend thousands of dollars and time to come appreciate you in person, that’s huge,” said Lauren Ash, after greeting some fans in tears. “It’s nice to know you’re not doing something in a vacuum. They’re why we have jobs!”
The actors — many of whom were at Comic-Con for the first time this year — spent more than an hour meeting and posing for photos with fans in the hotel’s lobby, which had been transformed into a Cloud 9 pop-up. Some regaled the cast about their favorite scenes or called them by their characters’ names.
“It’s bananas — absolutely surreal,” said Ben Feldman, who plays Jonah, a business school dropout employed at the store. “But I have two young children at home, so all of this is vacation. It would’ve been more exhausting if I’d stayed home.”
Amid the chaos of the activation, Michael Bigay, a 41-year-old fan from Stanton, was turning heads for his clever cosplay as Nico Santos’ character Mateo, the employee who is an undocumented immigrant. “Nico’s character being Filipino, gay and an immigrant, I’m exactly the same, and I never thought I’d see myself represented onscreen,” he said, holding a sign that read “ICE is for drinks.”
Bigay caught Ferrera’s eye from across the lobby and she waved him over to meet Santos. While the encounter left Bigay shaking (“I’m on Cloud 9!” he joked), it was notably moving for Santos too.
“I honestly had to hold back tears. It’s insane that people are dressing up like you,” the actor told The Times after meeting Bigay. “That word, representation, has been bandied about for the past few years, but seeing your own community be super appreciative that you’re this Filipino person on television that’s being celebrated, and that you’re not just some throwaway character but at the center of the story, has been so meaningful.”
Mateo’s ripped-from-the-headlines arc came to a head in May’s emotional Season 4 finale, as ICE agents hauled him away to a detention facility. “So many people reached out to me online, it was overwhelming,” recalled Santos. “They said, ‘This is exactly what my father, my mother, my aunt went through.’ Whether people want to believe it or not, everyone knows someone who is undocumented, and this is an issue that affects all of us.”
Mateo’s deportation story line will continue into the fifth season, which premieres Sept. 26, as the show explores what that lengthy and complicated process entails. “I’m realizing more and more that I like writing things that reflect on issues in the real world,” said Justin Spitzer, creator and executive producer. “You can’t set out with a goal like that; it’s too much pressure, and we would lose the funny. The ideal is to do it incidentally. It’s worked out for us so far.”
Later that day, the cast chatted inside the fan-packed Indigo Ballroom at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront — a monumental sight that led Ferrera to reflect aloud.
"['Superstore’] is creating a space where people can believe different things and have different opinions and not agree with each other but still coexist and treat each other with basic decency,” she said. “The success of that is reflected most in our fans and how diverse our fanship is.”
Once the panel ended, the collection of blue-vested fans dispersed into the mass of attendees in “Terminator” outfits, “Stranger Things” costumes and superhero garb. Relative to the genre fare, Comic-Con’s comedies like “The Office,” “Broad City,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “The Good Place” and, as of Thursday, “Superstore” feel like just a small part of the convention.
But that’s enough for a show’s devout disciple, said Jerome Tu, a 50-something “Superstore” fan from the San Fernando Valley, at the event with his wife, Kiana. “It’s hard enough in the real world to find people who like the same things that you like,” he said. “That’s always been the best part of Comic-Con.”
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