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America Ferrera on Returning to ‘Superstore’ for the Series Finale and the Show’s Cultural Resonance

Attention, Cloud 9 shoppers: if you weren’t expecting Amy to return quite so soon, you weren’t the only one.

“Superstore” star and executive producer America Ferrera didn’t anticipate her character Amy would head back to St. Louis during the same season she left for a corporate gig at the big-box retailer’s headquarters in California, but news that Season 6 would be the NBC series’ last dramatically shifted the trajectory of her storyline.

“I expected and hoped that the show would go on after my departure for many, many years,“ she tells Variety. “So it was definitely coming back sooner than I think any of us imagined. But at the same time, we knew that in the setup of how Amy left, it really lent itself to how she could come back.”

Without giving too much away about the “Superstore” two-part series finale, which airs Thursday night, Cloud 9 store #1217 finds itself in a precarious position that sends the big-box store employees scrambling to present the “Perfect Store,” as the penultimate episode is titled. The very real issues the show has tackled over the years — from immigration to unionization to the American healthcare system, and more recently, the shaky retail industry — dovetailed with an opportunity for Ferrera’s Amy to return in an organic way. In the episode ahead of the finale, Cheyenne (Nichole Sakura) was concerned that parent corporation Zephra was going to shut down all of its Cloud 9 stores and called Amy for some intel.

Of the way the show has reflected the country’s shifting economic realities over its six-season run, Ferrera says, “It really was always a part of this show existing in the reality of, at this moment in American culture, at this moment for the American worker, what is the reality of the working-class worker in this country? We set it up that Amy was going to work at corporate knowing that there was always an opportunity for her to play a role in the end of the show.”

Ferrera initially decided to leave the show at the end of Season 5. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the usual TV production schedule, the end of that arc ended up spilling over into the first two episodes of the final season. Amy departed Cloud 9 for corporate in the series’ 100th episode and Amy’s experiences in California were kept off-screen until the very end of the “Lowell Anderson” episode, in which Cheyenne called her.

“At the time, I didn’t know if ‘Superstore’ was going to go on for five more years or 10 more years, who knows,” she says. “So my wish for the show was that it just continued on and on and on and kept on going, and that I could start pursuing some of the other creative endeavors that I had been building towards and that I’m starting to starting to do now.”

While Ferrera first become a mainstay on television as Betty Suarez in the hourlong dramedy “Ugly Betty,” which ran for four seasons on ABC from 2006 through 2010, “Superstore” is officially the longest TV work family of which she has ever been a part.

“‘Ugly Betty,’ as huge and as intense as that period was, it was only four years,” she recalls. “It felt like a decade of my life. Because I was so young and because it was the beginning of my career and because it was such a massive hit, things felt so amplified at that time in my life. So when I look back, it feels like a decade, but it was only four years.”

(Ferrera has technically been part of the “How to Train Your Dragon” TV and film franchise for a total 12 years, though she notes the workflow rhythms of animation are rather different from the day-to-day experience of being part of a live-action broadcast network TV series.)

Getting to stay in one professional environment for so long afforded Ferrera an enormous amount of growth, she says, opening the door to start directing on “Superstore,” then Netflix’s “Gentefied,” which she also executive produces, and now, her first feature film.

“I started out as a producer and ended an executive producer, and grew monumentally as a producer through that experience,” she says. “Straight comedy was not ever my intention or my wheelhouse. Even [though] ’Ugly Betty’ was a comedy, it was really a dramedy; there was lots of drama in ‘Ugly Betty.’ So joining an ensemble cast of professionally funny people — Mark McKinney, Lauren Ash, Colton Dunn and Nico Santos, stand-up and sketch comedians that are incredibly masterful at their work — was not a comfort zone for me. But spending six years amongst them and with them, with such brilliant writing, I feel made me a better actor, made me funnier, made me better in everything that I do.”

Looking back on Mateo’s (Santos) storyline as an undocumented immigrant, or the maternity leave episode in which Amy has to return to work 48 hours after giving birth, or the healthcare storyline — in which the retail associates try to formulate their own insurance provider but wind up creating a Ponzi scheme — Ferrera is proud of a series that feels both culturally resonant and relevant.

“I will say that the most compelling thing about this show, when I first read the pilot, was that these were people and faces that we so rarely get to see, whose lives so rarely get the spotlight and attention [or] get humanized, dignified — and through laughter,” says Ferrera. “I’m so used to seeing a diverse cast through a tragic drama, where our lives are gritty and barren. But to see us through the lens of laughter and joy and camaraderie and wit and humor and intelligence — it reminded me of all the Norman Lear comedies. It reminded me of a show like that for this generation: How do we make the vast majority of the American workforce be seen and feel seen — and feel, in a way, dignified? Because their lives are worthy of our attention, and are worthy of being told. That has always, for me, been the driving force.”

“Superstore” ends with back-to-back episodes March 25 at 8 and 8:30 p.m. on NBC.

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