SUPERIOR DONUTS ends its freshman season with a frustrating episode, one that’s irritating on multiple levels. It’s revealed that Maya has had an ulterior motive for hanging out in the donut shop everyday—she’s been observing the regulars to use their personal stories and relationships as fuel for her dissertation on gentrification and inter-class relationships. It’s a pretty smart twist, as Maya has been lurking in the background of scenes without really contributing for the majority of the season. The supporting characters in this show have struggled to evolve past their initial one-note personalities. In a testament to how thinly-drawn and inessential they are, James wasn’t in this episode and I didn’t realize it until I looked over my notes to write this review. Providing a rationale for both Maya’s presence and her detachment from the rest is interesting.
However, there’s something so gross about the idea of a rich white millennial ingratiating herself with the regulars at a hangout in a lower-class neighborhood in order to get inspiration for something she’s writing, without ever telling them that she’s using their personal stories as material. It’s invasive, manipulative and unethical. White academics have done enthographic studies before, but one of the tenants of the widely accepted code of ethics in the field is informed consent from the subjects! Maya didn’t even give her “friends” the courtesy of changing their names in her paper. It feels weird to be saying this about TV characters who exist to entertain an audience, but their lives are not simply there for your consumption, Maya!
I can’t overstate how wrong Maya’s conduct here is—what’s absolutely appalling is that she never says she had plans to tell them and presumably would have been fine if they never found out—but I suppose it’s futile to expect this show to ever engage with an issue on more than a very, very surface level. What I found particularly strange is that not one character points out that what Maya is doing is wrong. They’re more concerned with how they’re portrayed in the dissertation than wondering why Maya didn’t ask them if they wanted to be included in the first place. A person who portrayed herself as your friend has been taking notes on everything you’ve said and done! Any normal person would have a problem with that, not just the content itself. The fact that the characters don’t is so odd and squanders an opportunity for an interesting dialogue.
Maya’s the worst, but she’s only one of the frustrating elements this week. Franco decides to follow Arthur after work, as he learns from the dissertation that he told Maya he visits his wife’s grave every Sunday, which Randy knows can’t be true because his wife was cremated. They find out that he’s attending a support group for his gambling addiction. This leads to a conversation where Arthur angrily tells Franco that their relationship is employee-boss, nothing more. This is such an unnecessary retread. They’re clearly not just employee-boss—one doesn’t track down the father of just an employee to invite him to an art show.
Last week, Franco realized that Arthur is the supportive dad he never had, but this week, we’re back to territory covered in the first couple of episodes in terms of their relationship dynamics. Franco’s girlfriend Nadine (who I think we’ve only seen once before) breaks up with him, then comes to the shop to explain herself. Arthur tells the others to give him privacy, but begins eavesdropping once he hears crying. Turns out Nadine is pregnant, but we later learn that it isn’t Franco’s baby.
The episode ends with two heaping doses of sentimentality. Arthur and Franco decide their way past boundaries—something they’ve already decided multiple times this season, but whatever. And Maya reveals that although she may have written harsh things about the others when she first met them, she’s learned to appreciate them over time. In the latter half of the season, the show decided to lean on cheap sentimentality instead of the decidedly more difficult endeavor of trying to craft jokes, and this ending is no different.
What’s frustrating is that Superior Donuts often seems well-intentioned, but it’s so misguided. It simplifies and flattens all issues, allowing the network to pat itself on the back for airing a show with its first black lead in a decade that touches on issues like racism and gentrification without ever risking alienating viewers. The show doesn’t have a point of view besides wouldn’t it be nice if we all got along? It would be nice, but that’s not the world we live in and that’s not the recipe for a successful comedy. As a whole, Superior Donuts fails to add anything new to CBS’s lineup, fails to take chances, and worst of all, fails to be funny.
Season 1, Episode 13 (S01E13)
Superior Donuts airs Monday at 9PM on CBS
Jennifer Trofa | Contributor