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Superstore (2015) s01e06 – Secret Shopper

This episode very nicely balances the sitcom potential of corporate sending a secret shopper to spy on the cast as they work with some character development on leads America Ferrera and Ben Feldman. Feldman has just aced a store policy exam, which he can’t stop bragging about, aggravating supervisor Ferrera. It comes up in relation to the secret shopper (i.e. Feldman wanting to do things by the book, Ferrera wanting to do things customer-focused) but otherwise their eventual arc is separate from the episode’s shenanigans.

Because while manager Mark McKinney is freaking out about the secret shopper, at least he’s not doing anything absurd about it. Some of the staff are going overboard, well, mostly it’s Lauren Ash, who’s harassing every customer she suspects of being the secret shopper. But she’s also picking her targets based on various biases. Her whole subplot is discomforting and fantastic.

Nico Santos is also flipping out about the secret shopper, trying to climb over his coworkers to get the possible raise, which just gives Colton Dunn the chance to prank him. There’s also some stuff with McKinney (and Santos) getting the wrong idea about a coworker being a plant, which the show nicely resolves by the end.

Ferrera and Feldman get a lot of interplay, including a bickering match over the store’s intercoms—which also gives Dunn at least one of his excellent rejoinders—before ending up banished to the stock room. They argue some more, they wreck havoc, they bond. It works out rather well, with Feldman showing a little more grit than usual as he’s unaware of why he’s grating on Ferrera so much. Once they get it worked out, it leads to a rather nice resolution for them. Before the punchline to the secret shopper arc, which comes in two phases. A shock laugh, then a series of little shock laughs.

Really nice episode. It gives Ferrera and Feldman a great showcase while still keeping the laughs coming in.

Superstore (2015) s01e05 – Shoplifter

The cold open has Jonah (Ben Feldman) and Garrett (Colton Dunn) discovering a dead body in the store, which doesn’t turn out to be foreshadowing because neither Feldman or Dunn have anything to do with the resulting dead body in the store C plot. Dunn’s just around this episode, checking in for the occasional one or two-liner (though I guess he does have something to do with the C plot).

Feldman’s busy all episode babysitting America Ferrera’s daughter (Isabella Day) while Ferrera has to counsel boss Mark McKinney, who’s the only one freaked out about the guy dying in the store. The counseling bit falls on Ferrera because actual assistant manager Lauren Ash is busy trying to bust a shoplifter (Natasha Leggero). Ferrera’s going to end up in that plot too, because “Superstore” is really good about keeping its characters nimble as they bounce around the store.

Nico Santos and Nichole Bloom end up with the biggest parts in the C plot, as they both want to buy the couch the guy died on.

If the episode’s a showcase for anyone, it’s Ash, who doesn’t just get to go off on suspect Leggero, but there’s also some character development (ish) for Ash regarding Ferrera. Plus some of her weird flirting with Feldman. Feldman’s mostly doing physical comedy with props and he’s good at it. The episode’s not heavy on belly laughs; Jackie Clarke’s script more goes with constant situational amusement (getting a lot of mileage out of three basic events, the dead guy, the tween babysitting, the shoplifter) and Ruben Fleischer’s direction is focused on the cast’s performances.

McKinney’s really good this episode too. Figuring out he should be autonomous from his workers’ perceptions continues to succeed and he and Ash get into some rather amusing banter without interruption from the rest of the cast, but still some good reactions.

So not the uproarious heights the show’s recently hit but consistently amusing, leveraging the cast over the situations. “Superstore”’s developing nicely.

Superstore (2015) s01e04 – Mannequin

“Superstore” significantly ups its game this episode. The cold open has Jonah (Ben Feldman) trying to show off how well he’s bonded with his coworkers by unintentionally insulting most of them. The sequence ends in a great banter showdown between manager Mark McKinney and assistant manager Lauren Ash (foreshadowing their subplot this episode) but also does some exposition on Amy (America Ferrera), revealing not just a nine year-old daughter but also a husband, which was sort of hinted at the end of the first episode. No wonder they slowed down Feldman’s romantic interest in her.

Ferrera and Feldman get one of the plot lines, with Ferrera teasing Feldman with a mannequin, which resembles him, as the store becomes more and more chaotic with Ferrera not paying attention. Lots of funny mannequin scenes, even when it’s getting old, it’s still funny stuff. Especially after Feldman starts flipping out over it, after having promised Ferrera she won’t be able to bait him. The culmination… well, it’s too good to spoil. But it’s amazing.

Ash and McKinney, instead of noticing Ferrera and Feldman aren’t doing any work and Nico Santos has got all the people he doesn’t like (almost everyone) working punishment duty in the freezer, are trying to each convince pregnant teens Nichole Bloom and Johnny Pemberton to give their baby up for adoption. McKinney and his (offscreen) wife have had foster kids but would love one “without the dings” and Ash just wants a baby. Lots of funny stuff between McKinney and Ash together, but also lots of laughs with them and Bloom separately. And the show’s figured out what I said before—putting Bloom and Pemberton together and playing them off other people is the best use of the characters. So funny.

As usual, Colton Dunn gets a bunch of great lines.

It’s only the fourth episode and “Superstore” is much funnier than the pilot ever suggested, while making its cast a lot more likable. McKinney in particular. He started out the obnoxious boss laugh target but now he’s solidly funny on his own.

So funny.

Superstore (2015) s01e03 – Shots and Salsa

This episode is one of those sitcom episodes where you’re laughing so loud and so constantly, there’s a chance you’re going to miss something. If it weren’t paced well. And it’s paced extremely well, between Ruben Fleischer’s direction and Justin Spitzer’s writing, there’s always the right amount of time to get the giggles out.

It starts immediately with the laughs—store manager Mark McKinney getting everyone to do the pre-opening chant. It’s absurd and inappropriate (McKinney’s Christian religiosity is a very reliable punchline).

From the second scene, the show splits off its two storylines, one for America Ferrera, one for Ben Feldman, with Colton Dunn providing something of a bridge as he advises still new Feldman on how not to fall into the “quicksand” of helping customers and coworkers. Dunn’s fantastic. His deadpan deliveries are probably the best on the show, though Lauren Ash—who I’m warming to, even if she’s still the subject of laughs versus the situations she finds herself in—is getting to be a reliable second.

Ferrera’s plot line is about the store’s new house brand salsa promotion. McKinney wants someone Hispanic to sell it, which Ferrera finds gross. Her coworker, Grace Parra, doesn’t see it that way, neither does Filipino Nico Santos, who doesn’t mind McKinney can’t see the difference. Lots of funny stuff as Ferrera tries to have some morals in the face of capitalism.

“Superstore” also goes in hard on how awful Americans are going to get when it comes to racializing their consumerism. It’s shocking, accurate, and hilarious.

Meanwhile Feldman makes the mistake of helping jackass pharmacist Josh Lawson with some boxes and ends up an assistant pharmacist for the day.

Ferrera, Feldman, and Dunn are all varying comedic straight men, though Feldman a little less as he’s got some quirks more similar to the absurdist coworkers; with Feldman and Ferrera, it’s all about their facial reactions foreshadowing their eventual lines, while Dunn’s got a much shorter lead time before he makes his sardonic response.

It’s a really, really funny episode.

Really funny.

Oh, and the corporate anti-racism video… wow. So funny. And way too realistic, which is the point.

Superstore (2015) s01e02 – Magazine Profile

Two months have passed since the previous episode—based on how long new guy Ben Feldman has been at the store and he’s gotten a settled in. During those two months he’s apparently chilled on the America Ferrera romantic interest, or—more likely—the writers realized they were rushing that plot line. Assistant manager Lauren Ash is still making googly eyes at a mostly unaware, occasionally confused Feldman however, because it gets laughs.

And letting Ferrera and Feldman actually develop chemistry is a good move; it doesn’t come up much in the episode, which has Feldman getting involved with “reporter” Eliza Coupe during her trip to the store. Quotation marks because Coupe writes for the chain’s corporate magazine, which has some hilariously odious practices.

Of course, Coupe shouldn’t be focusing on Feldman but store manager Mark McKinney, who’s a lot more sympathetic this episode than in the pilot—and no longer has gray hair, so something else happened during the two month window.

Ferrera’s time is mostly spent trying to get McKinney ready for reporter Coupe; her visit frames the episode, leading up to Ash discovering Coupe and Feldman locking lips, which leads to a really funny emergency staff meeting—though it’s unclear who gets to go to staff meetings (regular cast and supporting actors with lines) during the middle of business hours—where Ash has to have a hard talk with everyone about inappropriate sexual workplace behaviors.

The episode’s got two subplots. The first is for Colton Dunn, who doesn’t want to end up on the magazine cover… seeing as how he’s both in a wheelchair and Black, it’s not like photographer Josh Fadem (who’s wonderfully slimy) will be able to resist exploiting the combination. It’s really funny. Dunn’s great.

The other subplot is about pregnant teenager Nichole Bloom (who doesn’t look like she’s in still in high school) trying to get jackass, dimwit white boy rapper baby daddy Johnny Pemberton to record a jingle for the store. It turns out in the end, when they present the jingle to Coupe, they’re a lot better playing off people as a couple than playing off each other. It’s fine but it’s not on par with the rest of the episode, which solidly juggles laughs and heart.

Superstore (2015) s01e01 – Pilot

I’ve been wanting to watch “Superstore” on a recommendation and, starting it, I realized it’s very much my bag. It takes place in a very confined setting—a big box store, which is also very much my bag as I’ve always been intrigued at the idea of the department store and its descendants. I blame Mannequin. Also, highly recommend Robert Hendrickson’s The Grand Emporiums.

Anyway, “Superstore.” What a great cast. I’ve never seen anything with America Ferrera, except her guest spots on “Good Wife,” which I don’t remember but she’s fantastic. She’s a floor manager, ten years in at the store, serious but good-hearted. She’s got a goofus store manager (Mark McKinney, broad but likable in that Mark McKinney way) and a way too gung ho supervisor (Lauren Ash, who appears to be the “Dwight” of the show and is the only thing I’m not onboard with after this episode), but she does her job and cares about her coworkers.

The episode—and, as its the pilot, the show—is framed around Ben Feldman joining the team. He’s good looking and smart and conceited about the latter; he doesn’t seem aware of the former, which helps with his likability. He almost immediately starts crushing on Ferrera and most of his screwups in the episode are to impress her. Burgeoning subplot. But also Ash is mad crushing on him and seems primed to make a fool of herself in her pursuit, hence not being onboard with the character yet.

Also in the main cast are Colton Dunn, the only Black guy, who’s appropriately aware of it, and Nichole Bloom, as the good-hearted, pregnant, and too ditzy for the pregnancy to be a great idea pretty girl. The show gives Dunn all the great observation lines and Bloom gives it the uncomplicated heart. Ferrera is the layered heart.

Also Nico Santos starts at the same day as Feldman and sees it as a competition to be the better new person.

The cast is incredibly likable, the situations the sitcom gins up are funny, Ferrera’s great (she’s also a producer)… it’s one of those sitcoms you could easily marathon without paying attention to the clock.

I only stopped after the first episode because it was after midnight.

Last thing—Ruben Fleischer directs (and executive produces). Fleischer’s a lot better at sitcom directing than Venom directing. A lot better.

Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (2018, David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski)

The opening of Jesus Christ Superstar is the only place the three leads really interact. Jesus, Mary, and Judas all interact. Through and behind the songs, this quick narrative plays out. In addition to showcasing the performers–John Legend is Jesus, Sara Bareilles is Mary, Brandon Victor Dixon is Judas–and giving them brief solos, the sequence also establishes certain aspects (and limits) of the adaptation. Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert is both stage production and filmed performance of stage production. Sometimes the direction syncs, sometimes it doesn’t.

For example, director Rudzinski (who directed the filming) is far more interested in the physicality–and implied physicality–of Bareilles and Legends’s relationship. How they move and touch. Whereas Leveaux, who directed the stage production, isn’t really interested. Leveaux isn’t interested in how the cast emotes. Otherwise you wouldn’t have the guy at the end blinking rapidly to show interest in levitating messiahs.

Rudzinski, on the other hand, is very interested in the emoting. Sometimes way too interested in it. Well, only when the stage production is in a lull. Rudzinski can direct movement, he can’t direct lull. The opening is good, the finale is great (because it fully showcases Dixon), and the “Arrest” direction is truly awesome. Leveaux and Rudzinski do it as reporters sticking microphones and cameras in Legend’s face. But Leveaux has a lot of lulls. And Rudzinksi can’t really direct them.

Partially because Legend’s not great at the close-up acting. Dixon’s great at it. It’s hard to believe Dixon is going through all that work when no one’s even going to see him from the audience (but the camera sees this performance). Bareilles is somewhere in between. Her numbers usually stay in long shot, the close-ups saved for the more personal moments with Legend. Singing-wise, Dixon and Bareilles are good. Bareilles has one great number, but not the previous one, which is way too restrained.

Legend’s fine. It’s not a particularly great part. And he does look like he wandered off a Star Wars set. His followers look like an eighties multi-racial (but mostly white) movie gang. The priests look like something out of a Matrix sequel. The sets are scaffolding but generically urban. It looks very eighties. Down to the multi-racial gang.

But Legend’s fine. He just doesn’t impress like Bareilles or, particularly, Dixon. Though “The Temple” is pretty awesome in Live. It works out.

Jin Ha is great. Norm Lewis is almost as great. Jason Tam’s way too much just there. Erik Grönwall isn’t good. Ben Daniels is good but not great. He’s ostentatious in the wrong way. Similar to Alice Cooper, who’s cameoing. Thanks to the filmed live nature of Live in Concert, you even get to see him going around the front of the stage for the audience. He takes a victory lap for what amounts to stunt miscasting. He’s okay, but it’s a lousy “King Herod’s Song” number.

They should’ve gotten David Lee Roth.

The end is really impressive, starting with “Superstar.” Leveaux saved all the flash for the finale; the flash is big enough scale, Rudzinski can get a lot of coverage. It works out. Because so long as Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t mess up a few things, it’s always going to work out.

Dixon should’ve gotten to dance through the whole thing. And Legend needed an acting coach. Or Leveaux needed a better take on the character.

And David Lee Roth. He would’ve been so good.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski; written by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice; produced by Neil Meron, Marc Platt, and Craig Zadan; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas), John Legend (Jesus Christ), Sara Bareilles (Mary Magdalane), Ben Daniels (Pontius Pilate), Norm Lewis (Caiaphas), Jin Ha (Annas), Jason Tam (Peter), Erik Grönwall (Simon), and Alice Cooper (King Herod).


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