Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Can an old-fashioned sitcom address #BlackLivesMatter?

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Jerrod Carmichael is not the kind of comedian whose stand-up would transfer into the family-friendly arena without toning it down. He wasn’t even supposed to enter that arena in the first place, as The Carmichael Show is the second go-round for Carmichael at NBC. After the original version of the show was passed on, it was “retooled into a family-friendly vehicle” for a six-episode first season. This could mean death for a comedian like Carmichael, who feels so wholly fresh and original onstage. The Carmichael Show creates dissonance by tackling topics where other shows fear to tread but stays rooted in the traditional multi-camera setup. It’s a show that both pauses for laughter and addresses the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s not that Carmichael’s material lives or dies on whether it’s blue—the material, not the language, is what’s funny. It might not be traditionally family-friendly, but Carmichael certainly doesn’t shy away from social-justice issues in his work, either. It’s when the show—co-executive produced by Carmichael’s Neighbors director Nicholas Stoller—allows him to explore those issues and expand on his voice that it begins to show real promise. The pilot episode is not about that: Carmichael has just moved in with his girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West), a therapist-in-training. In the same building is his underachieving brother Bobby (LilRel Howery) and his ex-wife Nekeisha (Tiffany Haddish), but he has yet to tell his parents Joe (the great David Alan Grier) and Cynthia (the equally great Loretta Devine) for fear of their judgment. The pilot has its moments, especially when Grier and Devine are worked up into a lather. But it’s a scenario that could feature any young comedian in the lead and it would essentially be the same episode, with a couple more jokes about Obama thrown in to deflect from Maxine revealing that she and Jerrod have already been living together for three weeks.

It’s the second episode where The Carmichael Show gets interesting. It’s Jerrod’s birthday, and an unarmed black man has been shot in in Charlotte, where the show is set. Rather than celebrate Jerrod’s birthday, Maxine and Cynthia opt to join protesters, with Cynthia clad in her “civil rights clothes.” It’s hard to make jokes about senseless deaths, but the episode works exceedingly well. Carmichael can still bemoan the deaths of the countless unarmed black men (he name-checks Trayvon Martin specifically) and make jokes about racial profiling without it feeling contrived or inappropriate. In fact, it feels all too appropriate, and it’s the reason Carmichael should have a sitcom in the first place.

Carmichael is up for the challenge. He’s good when he’s repurposing his stand-up topics in the form of dialogue (“The guy who runs it almost made it onto Top Chef: Boston,” Maxine says about a food truck she wants to go to. “You don’t go to Boston for the food, you go there for the enthusiastic racism,” Jerrod says), but he’s better when he goes beyond showcasing his voice to conveying why his voice is a necessary one. Carmichael is also not afraid to get heavy. In the third episode, “Kale,” he gets upset because Joe isn’t taking care of himself. It’s an unexpected moment of vulnerability—just as in the conclusion of “Protest”—that occurs relatively early in the young sitcom’s life.

But those moments of insight and vulnerability don’t characterize the whole. The Carmichael Show feels odd confined in the multi-camera format, and even when the show is highlighting its star’s unique perspective, it’s mired in the tropes of lesser sitcoms. Still, it’s a shame that NBC has decided to double up on episodes for the show’s short run. With time, The Carmichael Show could develop its message into something far meatier than what it’s beginning presented. It has great potential to be an incendiary comedic voice among a sea of family sitcoms with a harpy mother, a no-nonsense dad, a scheming brother and a girlfriend who wants the approval of her boyfriend’s parents. Let’s hope that NBC gives The Carmichael Show room to reach that potential.