When the NBC sitcom “Superstore” was being cast, the producers generally didn’t have “types” in mind. They weren’t looking for a Hispanic woman to play Amy (America Ferrerra), a white man to play Jonah (Ben Feldman) or a Pacific Islander to play Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom).
But they did have a specific idea for one role: “Mateo ... was supposed to be a straight Latino guy,” said Nico Santos — who stars as gay, Filipino Mateo in the comedy about the workers at a Walmart-like big-box store.
“I never thought in a million years I’d be involved in a project that sort of celebrated the fullness of my identity of being queer and Asian.”
There’s more to Mateo’s identity than that, however. For one, not only is he Filipino, he’s undocumented. Santos is a legal immigrant, but he can relate.
“Being Filipino, I certainly know a lot of members of my community who are undocumented,” he said, “and that’s so relevant right now. … People stop me wherever I go who are just really appreciative of the fact that we’ve tackled the issue, because they themselves are undocumented, or a family member or a loved one is undocumented.”
The issue is handled not just with “dignity and respect,” as Santos put it, but with humor. “Superstore” is one of the most consistently funny comedies on television even as it takes on topics ranging from electoral politics to sexual harassment, from unfair labor practices to health insurance. But never in a preachy, very-special-episode kind of way.
“We don’t start with the idea of — let’s explore a social issue,” said creator/executive producer Justin Spitzer. “If anything, we are just watching to make sure the social issue doesn’t obscure the laughs. We don’t want to get so trapped in heavy storytelling or an issue that we are not having fun, because our first objective is to make an entertaining, fun show. And when it can be smart too, that’s great.”
That said, Spitzer and his writing team have made Mateo one of the most important characters on television. He’s in the country illegally, but — contrary to stereotypes — he’s not a rapist and he’s not stealing work from anybody. He’s just a nice guy trying to make a living at a minimum-wage job and looking for love.
“A lot of times the narrative of undocumented workers and just undocumented people is that they are criminals. We need to get rid of them,” said Colton Dunn, who stars as Garrett (a character who, sort of just incidentally, uses a wheelchair). “And it’s great to have an actual example of a character who … people can tune in and watch and go, ‘OK. We see the politics of it, but what’s the real world effect?’
“All he’s trying to do is be a floor supervisor at a superstore.”
It’s not like Mateo is made out to be some sort of saint. He’s as flawed as all the other characters — he’s often petty and more than a little mean.
As far as Santos is concerned, “Mateo is an everyday American. That’s what I love about Mateo’s character so much. That’s why I came to this country.”
He immigrated when he was 16 “in search of a better life," and finds the political climate surrounding immigrants today “so surreal.” He adds, "there are millions of undocumented immigrants in the country right now, and they are contributing members of society, not like these criminals and murderers like the president makes them out to be.”
“Superstore” returns with new episodes on Thursday, March 7, at 7 p.m. on NBC/Channel 5.