Friday, March 25, 2016

The Carmichael Show: Topical, Traditional, and Terribly Fun

Tiffany Hagdish, Jerrod Carmichael and Amber Stevens West in The Carmichael Show. (Photo: Ben Cohen/NBC)

At the end of last summer, NBC gave us a gift: six episodes of a sitcom based on the life and comedy of comedian Jerrod Carmichael. The entire short first season of The Carmichael Show was burned off in a blink-and-you-miss-it three weeks, two episodes at a time – normally an indicator of pre-broadcast cancellation. That The Carmichael Show was so refreshingly bold and charming just seemed to make its fate all the more inevitable. And so, when the comedy was renewed by the network just a week after its run ended, I was as surprised as I was delighted. Earlier this month, The Carmichael Show returned to NBC with its 13-episode second season, and now, four episodes in, it should top your list of "the best network shows you probably aren't watching."

First, the most shocking feature of The Carmichael Show: it's an unapologetic situation comedy. It has a small cast, a few established interiors, and it's filmed in front of a live audience. Set in Charlotte, North Carolina, Carmichael plays a thinly-veiled version of himself alongside his liberal-minded college-educated girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West); his conservative, God-fearing parents Joe and Cynthia (David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine); his underachieving older brother Bobby (comedian Lil Rel Howery); and Bobby's gangsta almost-ex-wife Nekeisha (played by the regularly scene-stealing Tiffany Haddish) On paper, it seems like almost every 90s-era comedy that sets a rising comedian and his pretty wife/girlfriend against his wacky family. (Its African-American cast notwithstanding, the show it most resembles is Everybody Loves Raymond, with Jerrod's parents' home seemingly decorated by the Barones' interior designer) But what makes Carmichael feel so fresh, and so unsettlingly current, is that it finds its voice by embracing that tradition rather than rejecting it. At its best, it calls back to All in the Family and Maude and to an era when a comedy set in a living room could frame the issues of our time, rather than distract us from them.

Carmichael certainly begs comparison to Black-ish, ABC's Anthony Anderson-helmed family comedy about an upper-middle-class black suburban family. (And no doubt there are some striking overlaps: not only in both being new mainstream black sitcoms, but also in the shape of the generational tensions with the parents and in the decision to cast a biracial female lead character.) Since its debut in the fall of 2014, Black-ish has more than lived up to its potential and remains one of my favourite network comedies. It has also become increasingly political over time. (Black-ish's recent episode touching directly on Ferguson and police brutality will rightly show up on many critics' "Best of TV" lists come December.) But if Black-ish earned that moment, The Carmichael Show just grabbed it. Black-ish's deepest foray into politics took place in the second half of its second season; Carmichael took on Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter in its second episode. And it didn't stop there: the remaining first season episodes took on gender identity, religion, and guns. I'm not sure which approach impresses me more, but the good news is that it doesn't matter – thankfully, the television universe has given us both.

Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier in The Carmichael Show. (Photo: Vivian Zink/NBC)

But if Black-ish is among the best of a relatively new breed of comedy (comfortably sitting alongside Emmy-darling Modern Family), The Carmichael Show firmly sits in a far longer tradition of American situation comedy. Its unrepentant topicality – "I don't understand," Jerrod's father Joe says in the first episode of the second season, "Is this one of those young people things, like believing Bernie Sanders is a viable candidate?" – sets the story resolutely in our own time, and the recorded live audience feels like part of that. Now, I'm no fan of laugh tracks, which often feel manipulative and even tyrannical. (We've recently been re-watching old seasons of M*A*S*H in my home and have deliberately turned off its laugh track. The result for us has been a richer and often deeper experience of the series because it lets us decide when the laugh lines are, and – especially in the sometimes unsettling gender politics of the show's early episodes – when they are not.) But at The Carmichael Show's best, as in last Sunday's episode which took on the Bill Cosby scandal, the recorded audience doesn't feel like it's telling us when to laugh, but instead gives us permission to.

The series also shows an increasingly confident hand with the familiar sitcom structure, which also enhances its ability to take on uncomfortable topics. Every episode so far follows a familiar format: introducing a controversial situation in its first minutes– e.g. infidelity, guns in the home, the moral implications of morning-after contraception, racial profiling – and brings each of the characters together to react in their own ways, and the humour emerges from their idiosyncratic and sincere responses. There are no awkward lies or misunderstandings, no stereotypical or slapstick characterization: just honest people who differ, being honest with one another – and the result is a uncharacteristically emotionally mature group of characters.

That said, its first season did have its clumsy moments – as with its first season episode centring on Jerrod discovering that the teen he'd begun to mentor as a Big Brother was transgender – but even there it fell short by reaching far. Mind you, that episode has become all the most pointed and significant following on yesterday's news about the passing of North Carolina's discriminatory anti-discrimination bill. Which brings us to the uncommon truth about topical comedy: it doesn't give a story a shelf life, it may also just as often give it increasing power over time. Topicality, embraced fully, brings a story into the world instead of being just about it – while the effort to decontextualize and universalize ironically often has the opposite effect. We are always telling stories from where we are, and the best ones do so deliberately and with intention. (Consider the power of a well-conceived period story – even one like the mid-90s-set comedy Fresh Off the Boat or, if you want to go more high brow, Mad Men. There the topical elements, large or small – be it the release of a disappointing, Shaq-sponsored video game in the former, or the emergence of civil rights and gender politics in the latter – are an indelible part of the fabric of the narrative. When a contemporary series unabashedly welcomes its time onto the screen, it serves that same end.

The Carmichael Show's second season continues on Sundays at 9pm, on ABC. The cast is uniformly strong (with Grier and Devine being the standouts) and the writing is sharp and improving every week. I do recommend tracking down the earlier episodes, but one advantage of its sitcom structure is that new viewers don't need any real prep to get on board. Tune in sooner rather than later: this one deserves to be watched – if only so NBC can surprise us with a third season next year.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large
since 2010.

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