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'Superstore': Frustrating hot and cold new workplace comedy in Aisle 9

'Superstore': Frustrating hot and cold new workplace comedy in Aisle 9
America Ferrera, left, as Amy and Nichole Bloom as Cheyenne in "Superstore." (Trae Patton / NBC)

Perhaps to take advantage of what remains of your Thanksgiving weekend tryptophan overload and whatever other holiday indulgences may have left you sleepy and impressionable, NBC has scheduled a preview Monday of its midseason sitcom "Superstore," whose official premiere is not until January. That it will have "The Voice" as a lead-in might also have figured into the calculations.

Set in a Midwestern Wal-Mart-style big box store, it's a workplace comedy whose creator, Justin Spitzer, wrote for NBC's "The Office," and in a sense still does. As in the earlier series, there are a socially tone deaf boss (Mark McKinney of "The Kids in the Hall"), a character (Lauren Ash) who takes the job with almost violent seriousness, and a pair of relatively normal characters (America Ferrara of the estimable "Ugly Betty" and Ben Feldman of the short-lived "A to Z") with an unspoken, inconvenient attraction. The series' shared subject is the dreadfulness and happiness of the co-working life.

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It's a bit of a frustrating mixed bag, "Superstore," on which I blow hot and cold from scene to scene. The cast is strong. There are nice things in the four episodes I've seen (the preview comprises two), which do get better as they go along and as caricatures turn to characters. But there are also things that make me sort of sad — and they are things meant to make me laugh.

It can be at cross purposes tonally, sending mixed messages; it seems to condescend to its milieu and people even as it explicitly warns against condescension. I might call that "lifelike," but it also feels unfocused and unformed. And the pilot ends with a rom-com move whose predictability and practical impossibility I found bothersome; others may just be happy with the Big Effect.

Feldman's character, new hire Jonah (condescending despite himself, yet wanting to fit in), is hard to make out. As he says to Ferrara's Amy — who, he will presently learn, is his supervisor — "I don't seem like the kind of person who would work in a place like this." What he seems like, in fact, is a TV writer, perhaps a TV writer doing research to write this sitcom.

Structurally, his place is Amy's "equal" and potential love interest. She's the show's responsible person, which means, of course, that she'll need to learn to be less responsible: "It's a good job," she says of her good job, "but tomorrow is going to be just like today. I know that because today is just like yesterday."

If there's not much chemistry between Feldman and Ferrara, each has good scenes with other actors; he does well with Colton Dunn (in a wheelchair, knows the ropes). She bonds with Ash in a way that enlarges both.

Other actors partner well: Nichole Bloom as a pregnant teenager and Johnny Pemberton as her urban white trash musician boyfriend (his proposed entry in a jingle contest: "Cloud 9, come inside/ Society's a mirage and sex is a prison" ); McKinney's comically Christian store manager, Glenn, whom he plays in a fretful upper register, and Nico Santos' competitive employee Mateo. (Glenn is evolving. On realizing that Mateo is gay: "Congratulations on that. I thought you might be, but I wasn't sure, and then I forgot about it.")

The action is punctuated with vignettes of a sometimes surreal bent: old people dancing close on the showroom floor, a worker eating food from the spill he's cleaning up, twin little girls who suddenly disappear as "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" plays in the background, a parade of lawn tractors, a man in his underwear doing laundry in a floor-model washing machine, a sign reading, "Let Cloud 9 design your Chuppa. It's L'Cheavenly." They have nothing to do with the story, but they do pretty up the place.

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'Superstore'

Where: NBC

When: 10 and 10:30 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-PG-DLV (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)

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