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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Carmichael Show tackles Islamophobia in a rare misstep

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It was only a matter of time before The Carmichael Show took on a topic it couldn’t fully do justice, but considering how deftly the show has mined transgender rights and gentrification for comedy, it was hard to guess what such a thing would look like. It looks like “New Neighbors,” the first Carmichael episode to veer into a discussion that doesn’t sound natural coming out of these characters’ mouths. Carmichael is so impressive because it finds organic ways of weaving contemporary issues into a character-based comedy. In this episode, it doesn’t feel quite as organic, making the episode feel more like an exercise than a story, which is a line Carmichael walks in every episode.

It would certainly help if the show was more willing to have the characters zig when you expect them to zag. From the earliest moments of “New Neighbors,” when the Carmichaels look out the window at the Muslim couple moving in across the street, it’s all too obvious where Joe and Cynthia will land on this particular issue. Naturally, they’re concerned the new neighbors could be terrorists, and as usual, it’s up to Maxine to enlighten them while Jerrod remains impartially situated between them, agreeing with whichever side allows him to make the sharpest joke at the moment.

“Neighbors” feels wan from its earliest moments because it draws the battle lines in such a predictable way. Maxine rails against Islamophobia while Joe and Cynthia go full Archie Bunker once Jerrod has granted them permission to be hilariously candid about their concerns. Imagine how refreshing and unexpected it would be if, for once, Maxine was the one to fall on the wrong side of history, or at least to have an opinion that can’t be shared at a dinner party. Even the most enlightened people hold some views they aren’t proud of, fears and anxieties that don’t align with their broader outlook on the world. When Joe and Cynthia always take the unpopular positions, they become caricatures.

At least, it might have been nice to pit Joe and Cynthia on opposite sides of the issue rather than splitting the debate cleanly down generational lines. The casual Islamophobia feels right on Cynthia, given her general churchiness, but Joe doesn’t strike me as someone who would take the alarmist view on such a thing. Specifically, I don’t believe Joe would say “What are they doing in my America?” Carmichael feels a bit mechanical when Joe and Cynthia act as broad, two-dimensional foils in whatever discussion Jerrod wants to have in any given week. The possibly terrorist-aligned Muslim neighbor is a pretty well-worn idea for sitcoms these days, so it’s a shame Carmichael couldn’t have come up with a shrewder take than “Joe and Cynthia might not like Muslims.”

As a result of going that direction, the only sensible direction for the second act is to ratchet up the absurdity as Joe and Cynthia go to ridiculous means to prevent Charlotte from becoming the next San Bernadino. Though the means aren’t quite as ridiculous as they could be. After all, it would be one thing if Joe and Cynthia chose to steal a non-descript, domestic package from their neighbors’ porch. That would be pure insanity. Instead, the package the neighbors receive looks like it was produced using one of the U.S. Postal Service diagrams that tell you what not to do with a package. Never mind that it was sent from Pakistan, the package looks suspicious as hell just because it’s mummified in duct tape as illicit mail so often is. Which makes it even crazier that Joe and Cynthia bring it in the house and set it on the coffee table. That’s the type of thing people do in sitcoms.

Still, Carmichael manages to be sharp and funny even when it’s a bit dull, there are great jokes sprinkled throughout. Jerrod has some delightful dialogue when dressing down his parents over the package theft: “I agree, if you see something, say something. But you’re not supposed to do something. And you didn’t even see something. You saw nothing and stole something.” The privacy discussion also yielded some funny lines, but by the time the neighbors were fully fleshed out in the third act, “Neighbors” had already beaten its “Islamophobia is bad” message into the ground. The tricky thing about topical comedy is that not all topics lead to good comedy.


Stray observations

  • Joe and Cynthia’s excitement over committing their first felony together is pretty cute.
  • This show is starting to resemble South Park, at least in the way that the success of each episode depends on how neatly the subject being satirized jells with the characters and the world.
  • The creepy guy from the tag is Jamar Neighbors. And he’s new. The title works on two levels, you see.
  • Unfortunately, The A.V. Club’s enthusiasm for The Carmichael Show isn’t matched by our readership, so we’re ending our weekly coverage of the show, but a season finale pop-in is possible.