The most successful comedy of my lifetime (and one of the most successful of all time) was about “nothing.” And even the several comedies that have come since have made sure the “something” they were about mostly amounted to nothing. To be sure, they had nothing to do with race, politics, religion or any of the other uncomfortable topics you can imagine.
It’s not hard to understand why most shows would stay away from these topics; not only are they divisive, they’re incredibly hard to squeeze humor out of in a sitcom format. Many have tried and most have failed. So most don’t try anymore.
One of the rare exceptions to that is ABC’s blackish which, like The Carmichael Show, follows the life of a modern day African American family that frequently gets into discussions about a whole host of timely political and social issues. Blackish certainly has its defenders, but I’ve watched most of its hot button episodes dealing with everything from the “n-word” to spanking, church and “the nod” (although admittedly I never got around to watching the much-heralded episode about a racially motivated police shooting) and was pretty underwhelmed with the results. I feel like it gets a lot of credit just for “going there” when so many others won’t but they seem to only be interested in dealing with these topics on a kindergarten level. Which is fine, but between that approach and the fact that I find both Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross’s characters consistently irritating, the show just isn’t for me.
But The Carmichael Show definitely is.
What’s funny is that, to be honest, it’s less polished, less trendy and, in some cases, worse acted than blackish ever is, but that’s part of the appeal. Jerrod Carmichael isn’t the world’s greatest actor (nor is Lil Rey Howery, who plays his brother) but he’s got a unique point of view and has surrounded himself with a terrific ensemble that’s more than capable of doing the heavy lifting when need be.
I often admit that my greatest shortcoming as a fan of television is that I don’t enjoy TV from before my time. I can appreciate it and respect it and recognize how it influenced many of the shows I love….but it’s unlikely to become something I enjoy very much for myself. However, I was always very fond of All in the Family and it’s one of the few older shows I remember watching time and time again with my parents as a younger teenager. Carmichael is an outspoken fan of Norman Lear’s work and it shows through his own series which, in many ways, feels like All in the Family for a new era.
While on any given week, The Carmichael Show can be found touching on timely topics ranging from Bill Cosby to transgenderism, it still feels like a show from a different time with a simple multi-camera format and scripts that play out like a three act play. Not unlike All in the Family and just about every other beloved comedy from yesteryear.
In some ways, that makes the show feel timeless….although others probably interpret it as “dated.” The live studio audience that often sounds like a raucous laugh track also doesn’t help a generation that’s become so laugh-track-averse warm up to the idea of giving this “square”-seeming show a shot.
I certainly think they’re missing out on a show that is, in many ways, capturing this specific point in our nation’s history better than any other show on television (along with Veep, which loses points in this particular contest because it’s not based in the real political world). The conversations are relevant, but beyond that, they’re really interesting and passionate and generally successful at representing differing points of view without resorting to beating up on a straw man.
I think part of the reason this works is that the show isn’t just liberal sermonizing. Carmichael’s personal political views are slightly inscrutable in some regards, but the show often lends itself to a liberal slant when talking about guns or Islamaphobia….but certainly not by beating us over the head and with a generous amount of wiggle room for opposition. What made All in the Family work so well was that Archie was a hilarious mockery of racist, conservative ignorance but he had Meathead to beat up on, who was a pretentious windbag in his own right. Despite his ideology, it often felt like Lear had just as much contempt for liberals as he did conservatives….and that feels true of Carmichael as well, which makes the comedy feel so much more well-rounded and fresh than it would otherwise. It does a tremendous job of demonstrating how stupid we can sound when we get so caught up in our opinions, we miss legitimate points coming from the other side.
In the episode where Jerrod’s parents, Joe and Cynthia, express fears about their new Muslim neighbors, we’re eventually treated to a lesson in tolerance but not before a number of widespread fears are addressed with a certain amount of respect. In fact, the entire episode is about Joe and Cynthia feeling nervous about a package left on their neighbor’s doorstep after remembering the story about the San Bernardino shooters’ neighbor who didn’t report suspicious packages because he didn’t want to seem Islamaphobic. Yeah…hard to get much more timely than that.
The standout episode of the show’s short first season was about Jerrod’s girlfriend, Maxine, participating in a Black Lives Matter protest, but not without pushback from Jerrod’s parents who were lamenting the way this generation protests. Later on in the episode, Joe suggests that maybe Jerrod deserves police suspicion due to his “aggressive walk.” Earlier this year, they did an episode on Bill Cosby that avoided going the easy route of cheap shots and character assassination (not that he doesn’t deserve that) but wrestling with the idea of whether or not we can appreciate the art of a man we revile.
Through nearly every bit of discourse, the show is quick to find ways to squeeze in legitimately laugh-out-loud jokes that keep the show from losing itself in its attempt to showcase all points of view and forgetting to be funny. Maxine (Amber Stevens West, doing a good job mining subtle humor as the “straight man” in most scenarios), typically represents the more progressive ideas, but is often the butt of the joke for being a bit pretentious, self-righteous and and as hypocritical as any good preachy liberal tends to be. Joe and Cynthia are a lot more old school and their outdated ideas are repeatedly used as punchlines as they oversimplify complex issues while somehow simultaneously proving ways in which Maxine is being naive.
Jerrod may lean towards progressive views but he’s also got a traditional background to fall back on which often finds him in the middle, taking turns relating to and then rolling his eyes at both sides of any issue. It’s a smart move and allows the show to feel like it’s genuinely interested in examining an issue and not just preaching a message. In fact, the episodes where Jerrod and Maxine are mostly on the same page are the episodes that struggle the most to find working comedy within the subject matter.
That was actually the case in a recent episode called “The Blues” which dealt with the family confronting the fact that Cynthia may be suffering from a bout of depression. While they did have Jerrod saying things that affirmed he came from a culture that doesn’t value therapy and the whole notion made him kind of uncomfortable….he was still joining Maxine in pushing his mom to go pretty darn quick. There’s been a couple of episodes like this and it often feels they just wanted to address a topic without fully realizing why and how it could work as a story for these characters (although it’s evident that, even with a misfire, a lot of thought goes into making every episode).
But that’s the tightrope this show has to walk; every week, we know we’re gonna find the family discussing some kind of hot button issue, but it has to find a way to be a comedy and not an afterschool special. It doesn’t always succeed, it’s true. Like anything that’s trying to properly articulate different positions on screen, The Carmichael Show sometimes falls victim to forcing awkward dialogue or working too hard to fit a certain stat or anecdote into the mix. There’s even been a few times where I feel like it fell into an optics problem where Jerrod and his biracial girlfriend were the “sensible” ones lecturing his brother and darker-skinned ex-wife (a hilarious Tiffany Haddish, consistently delivering solid one-liners with confidence and precision) on why they’re silly or uneducated regarding that week’s issue. Look, it’s not perfect. But more often than not, they hit the sweet spot.
I’m especially fond of the episodes that really effectively set up an actual storyline before breaking into family discussions. Like the episode where Jerrod wonders if he can trust his old friend–who happens to be fresh out of prison–alone with Maxine or when they end up debating the morality of Plan B with his parents after a pregnancy scare. Perhaps the strongest episode to date found Joe struggling with what to say in his eulogy at the funeral for his abusive father. It was an episode that found great humor in some real dark stuff and was beautifully jarring in its rawness.
This seems like a good time to mention that David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine are both doing excellent work, switching back and forth from landing their jokes with hilarious sitcom hamminess and then shifting gears to weightier character moments when need be.
In a few weeks, The Carmichael Show will air its second season finale. That episode’s topic? Donald Trump.
I can’t wait to see how this family tackles this ludicrous election cycle and love that I’m not quite sure what to expect. I know on his Late Show appearance, Carmichael joked about how he doesn’t know if he’s upset about Trump’s wall because everyone loves walls–that’s why all our houses come with them. He also mentioned that now that he’s moved up to a higher tax bracket, Bernie makes him nervous. Neither or those were the funniest jokes, but I appreciate that he wasn’t just saying was he was supposed to say. And somehow, I doubt his show will take the easy way out on the subject of Trump in its finale.
I know this season is almost over but with dependable ratings and a passionate critical following, I’m confident we’ll see The Carmichael Show back for season three. So, do yourself a favor and find a way to catch up over the summer. Deal with the multi-cam, laugh track aesthetic until you grow to appreciate it, deal with some of the show’s growing pains and forgive them when they don’t knock it out of the park because, to be honest, what they’re trying to pull off is so difficult, the number of home runs they hit is a bonafide miracle and a dud here and there won’t kill you.
The Carmichael Show doesn’t just bring up hot button issues for the fun of it. It’s the most honest, insightful and worthwhile family sitcom on TV right now. If you’re like me, you’re shocked to think that there was actually a time when a show would tackle so many polarizing political and racial issues like All in the Family did–and that a show like that would air on CBS! Well, this time around, NBC is the network brave enough to air a show that refuses to pull punches and those of us who are watching and engaging with The Carmichael Show are better for it.
Oh, and if you didn’t hear, Joe Carmichael is killin’ it on Facebook!