SUPERSTORE Creator Justin Spitzer Looks Back on Very Big, Out-of-Time 'Olympics' - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

SUPERSTORE Creator Justin Spitzer Looks Back on Very Big, Out-of-Time ‘Olympics’

August 19, 2020 by  

Superstore Olympics Explained

SUPERSTORE — “Olympics” Episode 201 — Pictured: (l-r) Nico Santos as Mateo, Ben Feldman as Jonah, Colton Dunn as Garrett, America Ferrera as Amy, Nichole Bloom as Cheyenne — (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

On August 19, 2016, SUPERSTORE got its biggest platform yet, with an installment set after the Olympics. But the opportunity was a bit bittersweet.

“When NBC told me that we’d be doing an episode after the Olympics, they said it like it was good news, but I was less sanguine about it,” SUPERSTORE creator Justin Spitzer admits.

The decision came at a pivotal time for the series. SUPERSTORE launched its first season with a two-episode block behind a November 2015 episode of THE VOICE, with a third installment debuting exclusively online the following day. (That third episode would go on to air on NBC late in December.) The remaining eight episodes of season 1 aired over January and February 2016, with the show’s second season order coming less than a week after the freshman season wrapped.

However, that still meant the show had to sustain interest during its prolonged break. And putting a new installment behind arguably the biggest event of the year was a good way to get attention to the comedy.

“On the one hand, it was exciting that the network wanted to help us grow our audience,” Spitzer says, noting the comedy was also about to move to its now-steady Thursdays at 8/7c time slot, and the support—which included a significant ad campaign—was appreciated. “But I also remembered how much extra work and scrutiny went into the episode of THE OFFICE we did after the Super Bowl, and I was apprehensive about having our first show of the season suck up so much time and energy right off the bat.”

But the show had to go on—and “Olympics” (written by now-co-showrunner Jonathan Green and directed by Ruben Fleischer) nabbed the show’s best ratings so far. Here, Spitzer reflects on the path to crafting the episode.



The Timeline Problem.

SUPERSTORE’s first season concluded with a major cliffhanger when the Cloud 9 employees essentially went on strike, protesting the corporate bosses firing Glenn (Mark McKinney), who manipulated the system to get Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura) paid maternity leave.

“Since this episode would be seen by a lot of new viewers, the network asked us not to do anything overly-serialized that would depend on the audience knowing backstory, and for it to take place mostly inside the store, so people would get a sense of where the show generally lived,” Spitzer recalls. “Which posed a challenge, since we’d just had the employees stage a walk-out at the end of season 1.”

“We tried to think of ways to make this work chronologically; for example, maybe Cloud 9 managed to convince the staff to come back to work for a couple weeks around the Olympics? But nothing felt great,” he continues. “So we decided to just have it take place out-of-time. We were hoping that, by having Cheyenne still be pregnant—she had given birth in the previous episode—we’d be telegraphing to fans of the show that this wasn’t chronological.”

While some fans were confused night-of, the problem has been compounded in recent years, as people caught up via streaming platforms, because the episode is listed as the season premiere/2×01. “Over the years, I’ve seen any number of confused comments on Twitter and Reddit, so maybe we should’ve been more explicit,” Spitzer says. “Like having [stars] America [Ferrera] and Ben [Feldman] address camera at the beginning and say, ‘Imagine we’re still in season 1 for now, and next episode we’ll pick up where we left off.’”

The Complications of Making a Very Big Episode.

With that platform at their disposal, it couldn’t be just a regular episode of SUPERSTORE. “It had to relate to the Olympics in some way, and it had to be accessible to an audience that wasn’t familiar with the show,” Spitzer recalls. “And as we began to pitch stories down the line, some other mandates emerged. The network and studio have always given us a lot of freedom, but now the [an] organization dealing with the Olympics [was involved], and they had opinions.”

Tonally, “we were told that the episode had to be ultimately uplifting and inspiring, which was a challenge for a show that was usually cynical,” Spitzer says.

And the writers also weren’t allowed to say anything negative about the Olympics or the athletes who participated, which led to a tweak to two storylines.

“Originally, we had wanted Dina to be suspicious that [Cecily Strong’s] Missy Jones, the Olympic gymnast who’d come to the store, was on steroids,” he says. “Big no! We’d also planned for the episode to build to a big confrontation between Missy and Amy—who’d grown up idolizing her—but that version portrayed the Olympian as a more negative character.”

Superstore Olympics explained

Credit: NBC

Bringing in the Guest Stars.

In the show’s first season—and the years since—the comedy series often cast character actors—or people with ties to the stars—for its guest spots. But for “Olympics,” there was both network synergy (with Strong, who stars on NBC’s SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE) and multiple Olympians who appeared.

“For Cecily, she’s just hilarious; I can’t remember if we even considered anyone else,” Spitzer says. “It made me sad that we had to shrink that part, because I would’ve loved to use her as much as possible.”

For the Olympians—McKayla Maroney, Tara Lipinski, and Apolo Ohno—they were featured as customers in Cloud 9, during the infamous interstitials.

“We were sent a giant list of pretty much any Olympian who someone thought might be interested in playing a part,” Spitzer recalls. “And then we pitched on potential interstitial ideas for each, and used that to guide who we approached. Corporate synergy might’ve helped with Tara Lipinski and Apolo Ohno, since they were NBC commentators, but I couldn’t say for sure.”

But one potential cameo didn’t come through: “We also approached Carl Lewis’ reps, but didn’t hear back in time.”



The Start of Something Bigger.

Unsurprisingly, Glenn was all-in on the Olympics, setting up an elaborate opening ceremony—more on that below—and strongly insisting that America was the best. But in trying to figure out what, or who, might cause him to look at the world a little different, the writers kicked off what is now the show’s longest-running thread: Mateo (Nico Santos) discovered he was in the country illegally.

“Before this point, it had never even occurred to us to say that Mateo was undocumented,” Spitzer says. “It really just came out of pitching on the Glenn story, that he would start out with this knee-jerk sentiment that ‘America is number one in everything,’ and that that would conflict with Mateo’s Filipino pride.”

“Then we wanted to find a way to flip the dynamic, so that Glenn would start pushing multiculturalism while Mateo became all ‘Rah-rah USA!’—at least outwardly,” he continues. “So that’s how we came up with the idea that Mateo might learn he was undocumented and then started pushing too hard to cover it up. That led to us doing some research and discovering a New York Times article about Jose Antonio Vargas, whose story closely mirrored what we were planning.”

In the years since the episode aired, a number of Mateo’s colleagues found out the truth, and things came to a head during the season 4 finale when it was discovered and he was detained by ICE. (While he was held in custody for a time in season 5, he eventually went back working at Cloud 9, in different capacities, while the case made its way through the legal system.)

“I’m still surprised at how this giant, multi-season, show-defining arc grew out of just needing a solution for one character’s motivation in a B-plot of a random episode,” Spitzer admits.

On a lighter note, the episode also marked as a pivotal one for the ensemble. “One other surprise that came out of the episode…was discovering [Kelly Schumann’s] Justine,” he says. “She had like one line in one scene that she killed, and we decided we needed to see more of her.”



Ending on a High Note.

Early on in the process of creating “Olympics,” NBC requested “the episode build to something beautiful or inspirational,” Spitzer says. “Kind of like the stars on the ceiling [moment of beauty scene] from the pilot. I don’t know if you could call that ceremony either beautiful or inspirational, but I guess we hoped ‘bonkers’ got us close enough.”

In the episode, after Glenn’s opening ceremony is derailed when Myrtle (Linda Porter) accidentally starts a store-wide fire while trying to light the makeshift Olympic torch, Dina (Lauren Ash) takes it upon herself to create the greatest closing ceremony possible.

As crazy as it turned out—Dina was lowered down to the parking lot from a helicopter, fireworks, sparklers, fire dancers, and more—it was almost even bigger.

“In the first draft, the ceremony began in the store, with Dina, wearing a white dress and with a fan blowing back her hair, singing a closing song, and then escalated from there,” Spitzer shares. “Eventually ending in some of the fireworks landing on the store and setting another fire.”

Of course, it wasn’t (all) as glamorous as the finished product looked.

“Being on set when we shot that opening ceremony was probably less fun than it appeared, since there are strict rules about having open flames on the soundstage, so everything had to be VFX,” he says. “Being on set for the closing ceremony, on the other hand, was insane! We had to cut much of it for time, but the whole thing was this unbelievable, choreographed trippy extravaganza—it felt like we were at Burning Man. Like, we’re supposed to be this small, relatable workplace show, how the hell did we end up doing this?!”

SUPERSTORE, Fall, NBC; Seasons 1-5 Now Streaming on Peacock

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