<em>The Carmichael Show</em> credibly mines our era’s ideological battles for laughs
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As ABC’s Black-ish demonstrated last season, viewers have an appetite right now for comedies that are about a lot more than nothing. But NBC’s late-summer series, The Carmichael Show, which debuted on Aug. 26, goes several steps further. Rather than simply explore racial identity and tension, it’s wading deep into the racial—and political and religious—conflicts that characterize our era. Everything your mom orders you not to talk about at the Thanksgiving table is exactly what The Carmichael Show trades on. Yet outrageous as much of the dialogue seems, it’s far more recognizable than most of what we see in modern comedy.
On the one hand, the second episode kicks off with police shooting an unarmed teen and main character Jerrod (modeled after the comedian star of the same name) revealing cops once forced him to the ground when they mistook him for a suspect. On the other hand, Jerrod’s girlfriend, who wears a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, seems uncomfortably enthusiastic about joining the protest that is described as a carnival atmosphere complete with food trucks and DJs. “Are you always this giddy when somebody gets shot?” he asks her. Later, his ex-sister-in-law unapologetically brings home a television set she looted from some other looters.
If all this sounds a little controversial for Wednesday night schedule filler, it’s probably because what usually passes for controversy on network television wouldn’t challenge consensus in the Harvard faculty lounge. You don’t have to agree with all of The Carmichael Show’s points to laugh at them, and a couple sexual gags are both unfunny and tired. But so many familiar-sounding takes on current events fly so fast, particularly in the second episode, you’d be hard-pressed to prove the writers have a rock-ribbed ideology. While that may not last, for the time being it makes the series something new on the sitcom scene.
Yet while many of the zingers stem from topics so fresh they might have been ripped from Hannity’s Great American Panel, some outlets have charged the show with being anachronistic. They’re right that the laugh track and three-camera format have an old-school vibe, but the complaints seem more centered on the moral conflicts, like Jerrod revealing to his parents (a fantastic David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine) that he and his girlfriend have moved in together. New York magazine patronizingly observes, “There’s something almost charmingly old-fashioned about the idea of this being an issue for anybody.”
Evidently, a lot of coastal critics are skeptical that 21st-century parents could find cohabitation outside of marriage problematic. Perhaps that’s because, unlike the show’s 27-year-old star (previously best known for the Seth Rogen movie, Neighbors), they don’t hail from Winston-Salem, N.C., or some other city that can’t be identified by initials. Critics also seem puzzled by characters trying to win political arguments by appealing to the Bible. Given that 83 percent of black Americans identify as Christian (significantly more than white Americans), who’s out of touch for finding this dialogue peculiar?
The first episode of The Carmichael Show lacks some chemistry and the pacing feels a little off, but anyone who can recall that first episode of Seinfeld knows that sometimes it takes time for mold-breaking comedies to find their feet. And much like Seinfeld, NBC may not yet know what it has with The Carmichael Show—the network is burning it off at the end of summer until its A-list fall comedies debut. Given the series’ immediate social media buzz and strong ratings from younger viewers, NBC may want to rethink that plan.
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