Pop Culture

If You're Not Watching NBC's The Carmichael Show, You Should Be

The Carmichael Family discusses the issues of the day in their own North Carolina way. L-R: Lil Rel Howrey as Bobby, Amber Stevens West as Maxine, Tiffany Haddish as Nekeisha, Jerrod Carmichael as Jerrod, Loretta Devine as Cynthia and David Alan Grier as Joe.
The Carmichael Family discusses the issues of the day in their own North Carolina way. L-R: Lil Rel Howrey as Bobby, Amber Stevens West as Maxine, Tiffany Haddish as Nekeisha, Jerrod Carmichael as Jerrod, Loretta Devine as Cynthia and David Alan Grier as Joe. Chris Haston/NBC| 2017 NBCUniversal Media, LLC
The beauty of The Carmichael Show, one of NBC’s last attempts at a true and honest situation comedy, is that it finds its stride while waddling in the murkiest waters. During the show’s season premiere Wednesday night, the family held a 22-minute forum on the topic of sexual assault. Everyone had varying opinions on the issue, some controversial and based in an “old way” of logic and thinking, while others were more progressive and outlined why consent is necessary at all times. Not once did the episode feel heavy-handed or even forced. It broke down the rather complicated balance of reading body language and, in Bobby’s case, a whole episode of guilt turned into one long joke about his decency in the bedroom. In the second episode, titled “Support the Troops,” the family holds a large discussion about patriotism, right down to why we should or shouldn’t have gone into Iraq. It’s pretty clear that The Carmichael Show isn’t purposely trying to be labeled as that kind of show, but would rather be the show that best represents conversations that occur in households across the country.

Rooted in the same social calisthenics and casting archetypes as a Norman Lear production such as All In the Family or Good Times, The Carmichael Show focuses on a singular family dealing with modern issues every step of the way. There’s no problem finding comfort in the conversations that normally make us uncomfortable. And for that, it remains one of the few comedies on network TV that still have an uncertainty to them, even after it’s been highly acclaimed.

For comedian Jerrod Carmichael, whom the show is named after, his dry humor and self-deprecation have made him one of comedy's rising young stars, with two HBO specials to his name already. The Carmichael Show was supposed to be a firm launching pad, but instead has hung in limbo. The first season aired sporadically during the summer of 2015, barely getting cleared beyond six episodes. NBC renewed it for a second season, which aired last year to raves on Sunday nights following Little Big Shots, but wouldn’t commit to a fourth season, even if a third was all but assured to the cast and crew.

“I'm not really concerned. I'm really thankful for the audience that we have. We hope to continue to grow, so I'm not concerned," Carmichael told The Hollywood Reporter in January, just before it was revealed that the show would return this summer. “Now people have a way of finding it, and we hope the people find it and stay with us whenever it airs. Obviously, I'm excited so I want to get it to the people as soon as possible, but I don't really worry about that. There are so many other things to focus on.”

One of those things that get touched on but don’t get full dedication is the guy currently occupying the White House. Last May's Season 2 finale was titled “President Trump,” back when he was a fringe candidate. Now the show is breaking out jokes about using “Mike Pence” as a safe word and last summer’s Billy Bush tape in which Trump admitted to sexual assault, and cracks on a certain portrait looking like a glamour shot for The Apprentice. In other words, Trump factors just as much into this realized fictional world as he does in the real one. (Of note: NBC had to review all of the Trump mentions in the show since this particular Head of State is lawsuit-friendly.)

Through and through the show has tackled gun control, religion, Black Lives Matter, depression and more. In Season 3 alone, the family’s patriarch, Joe (David Alan Grier), has to deal with his pragmatic mother, Francis (guest star Marla Gibbs), preferring assisted suicide rather than continuing to live with Alzheimer’s. With that notion, it takes so many different sweeping emotions and bases, not just of black culture but of conservative, 1970s thinking (similar to Netflix’s F Is For Family) and presents them with a purpose. The Carmichael Show doesn’t appeal as an after-school-special type of show; Carmichael’s own blunt delivery, combined with Grier’s well-known history of playing up to live audiences as an Archie Bunker type, proves that. The cast, rounded out by Loretta Devine, Amber Stevens West, Get Out scene stealer Lil Rel Howery and Girls Trip’s Tiffany Haddish, all piece together their own ideas on weekly topics with mixtures of comedic timing, aloofness and poignant thought.

So how does all of this work on a continued basis? Much as with NBC’s current best drama, This Is Us, Carmichael and the show’s writing team aren’t afraid to look at something and contort it in ways that fit all the characters. Unlike with This Is Us, you won’t be left a crying mess after it fades into the previews for next week. As the show has been pushed around NBC's schedule by unsure execs, it’s morphed into cult status among fans as the smart comedy willing to be topical and still funny. It’s even prompted many new fans to latch onto the show after it was added to Netflix earlier this year. With all the shuffling of comedies on network TV, Jerrod Carmichael and company currently hold the title of having the smartest and most underrated. Most of the show's major players have seen increased profiles in the past 12 months alone, raising its own profile further still.

Now if only those NBC execs saw what we see every week.
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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell