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

The Carmichael Show tries on gentrification, just to see how it fits

Illustration for article titled The Carmichael Show tries on gentrification, just to see how it fits

The moment The Carmichael Show opens in Nekeisha’s apartment, it’s obvious that something’s going down. Because for all of its thought-provoking conversations on a weekly basis, The Carmichael Show isn’t one to play around with too many sets—it’s typically fine with the standard two of Jerrod and Maxine’s apartment and Jerrod’s parents’ home. So when “Gentrifying Bobby” introduces a new set, it does so with a bang. And a knock. What follows in an ambitious episode of The Carmichael Show but one that perhaps flies too close to the sun.

It’s a really funny cold open though.

One of the most interesting things about The Carmichael Show is Jerrod Carmichael’s apparent willingness to play the role of the “bad” guy in a lot of the episodes’ arguments. Whether it’s chastising his father for planning the funeral of an abusive, absentee father or championing Bill Cosby the comedian (despite the controversy of Bill Cosby the person) or discussing affairs, Jerrod the character doesn’t exactly come across as a star creating an ego-fulfilling character. Unless you count the fact that he has Amber Stevens West as his girlfriend and Loretta Devine as his mother.

So here in “Gentrifying Bobby,” Jerrod has absolutely no problem diving head first into that unpleasant role again, as he is of course pro-gentrification. Obviously, it’s an argument with merit on both sides, and Jerrod being for gentrification doesn’t automatically make his choice unpleasant. The episode itself even points out that gentrification can make formerly dangerous neighborhoods safe and bring in culture (sort of). On the other hand, that safety clearly isn’t for the the people who originally lived in those neighborhoods, since gentrification means Nekeisha’s rent keeps being doubled and she can’t afford to live in her home.

But the eager-to-be-unpleasant Jerrod Carmichael doesn’t rear his head until he directs his attentions at Bobby and his role in this entire situation. Because it’s one thing to make jokes about how much of a joke your brother is; it’s another thing to tell him point blank:

“Bobby, people get knocked down all the time, but they get back up, and dust themselves off. But no, not you. You just lie there on the ground and complain about how bumpy it is.”

Maxine’s reaction to Jerrod saying that to Bobby
Maxine’s reaction to Jerrod saying that to Bobby

Sidenote: That’s not even a little close to sugar-coating anything, and yet that’s pretty standard for the lead character in a family sitcom on network television in 2016. Jerrod Carmichael may not be the Walter White of network family sitcoms, but it is fascinating—if not also somewhat jarring—to be able to witness that on a weekly basis on NBC. The Carmichael Show, despite the studio audience and the optimism inherent in a lot of the episode’s discussions (at least for the audience to make up their own minds), is a darkly humorous show for the most part, and that’s on full display here.


The thing about “Gentrifying Bobby” is that despite being somewhat of a smaller concept (despite the largeness of gentrification, it’s not exactly headline news like Cosby or Black Lives Matter) episode in comparison to previous Carmichael Show topics, it’s an episode that feels almost too constricted by what the show “has” to be. Of course everything has to work out for Bobby and the brothers have to reconcile by the end of the 30 minutes. But the thing is, as harsh as Jerrod’s take-down of Bobby is and as good as Bobby’s arguments for setbacks in life are, within this specific situation, Jerrod kind of is right and Bobby is full of excuses. That’s where things get tricky.

Jerrod: “You’re always making excuses, man.”
Bobby: “Excuses? Oh, you mean like: lack of jobs, lack of opportunity, a system that’s set us up to keep us down. Those are real. You used to know that. But I guess you forgot where you came from.”


That’s definitely a slippery slope, because a lot of Jerrod’s argument is tied up in “pull oneself up by one’s bootstrap” rhetoric, and Bobby has quite the point when he talks about the lack of opportunities and a corrupt system. But within the context of the show as it is and as it’s been able to show in these 11 episodes, Bobby truly is full of a million excuses for why his life’s not better. He even has conspiracy excuses for why he got fired from Arby’s.

It’s heavy, and if this were almost any other sitcom, it might not even be worth this much consideration. But since The Carmichael Show is a sitcom that relies on the very idea of consideration, it’s difficult to avoid the elephant in the room that Jerrod brings up in the first place. The Bobby that has been shown from the very beginning of the series isn’t anyone’s definition of a go-getter or even maturity. Bobby just recently complained about how Bill Cosby talks down to young black men (a valid point) like himself… and Jerrod was the one who pointed out that Bobby is not a kid, which he apparently still hasn’t figured out yet.


It’s not even Jerrod’s rant that really sells that though. Instead, it’s Jerrod’s later scene with their parents. While the scene points out just how much of an emotional robot Jerrod can be and always has been (“Affection is for the weak”), it also has Joe and Cynthia really, truly struggle to find anything legitimate to say when it comes to Bobby having strengths. He keeps his bedroom clean and his laundry folded, which to Cynthia proves he can work at Old Navy but mostly shows that he has very basic skills. Again, this is a sitcom, and with the loser (for lack of a better term) character, there’s never really an actual expectation for the show to address that sort of thing. But in this episode, it’s all on full display. So while Jerrod eventually makes it clear that his intent was to let Bobby know that he can do anything he wants if he puts his mind to it, the episode itself kind of does a lot to say that he can’t.

At the end of all of this, Bobby fails upwards, which makes for a happy ending and stops this episode from being perhaps too bleak when it comes to the Jerrod/Bobby plot. On the flip side with the more comedic Nekeisha parts, it’s more about her being the worst house guest ever (with a rude friend and a rude friend’s hilariously terrifying child), taking over Jerrod and Maxine’s space without any consideration or plan for her future. Jerrod and Maxine have every right to be frustrated by the situation, but then there’s the saving grace: The scene between Nekeisha and Maxine about plans for the future does put her life situation into better perspective, with Nekeisha even subtly pointing how the game of life can be rigged and “counter-intuitive” (she’d have to take out loans to pay to do something she’s already good at). Not once does Nekeisha throw out any excuses, which is amazing considering she was the one who was actually behind on the rent and evicted.


By the way, Tiffany Haddish’s line delivery has quickly become a highlight of the series (along with Nekeisha as a whole), and every time she and Amber Stevens West interact, something fun always comes out of it. That fun is usually in the form of Maxine’s guilt, gentrification-based and otherwise, and it comes out in full force when she’s around Nekeisha. Plus, Nekeisha deserves a lot of love for singing Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” like no one was listening.

“Gentrifying Bobby” is honestly a pretty funny episode of The Carmichael Show. But the message and conversation gets really muddled in a way that doesn’t often tend to happen. In making the episode about Bobby, it obviously gives the topic a face for the audience. But at the same time, that familiar face ends up weakening the discussion as a whole, even though Lil Rel Howery nails everything that he’s given in this episode. At least Bobby has a real job now.


Stray observations

  • As you can probably tell, I’m not Joshua Alston. But he let me fill-in for this week’s episode review, so if you need to call me Joshua in order to accept that, then I can’t stop that. (Thanks again, Joshua!)
  • By the way, Erik Adams did a Walkthrough interview with Lil Rel Howery about this episode.
  • This isn’t really a Joe/Cynthia-heavy episode, but the show certainly uses their time well. I had no idea that Burlington Coat Factories were the female-equivalent of strip clubs.
  • Also, 32 strip clubs, Joe?
  • So, did little Susie start “the fire”?
  • Joe: “Well everybody doesn’t respond to tough love. I yell at you, you rise to the occasion. I yell at Bobby, he dies to the occasion.”
    Jerrod: “That’s not your first time saying that, is it, dad?”
    Joe: “Well I’ve been tossing it around…”
  • Maxine: “More specifically, what are you good at?”
    Nekeisha: “I can tell when a conversation is organically over.”
    Jerrod: “How you feeling about this one?”
    Nekeisha: “It’s close.”
  • Bobby: “Now Nekeisha, let’s storm out.”
    Nekeisha: “Oh, storming out is the only way I know how to leave a room.”
  • My gentrification story: A lot of times when I take Lyft, my driver will tell me about how dangerous my neighborhood used to be, maybe about two or three years before I moved to it. Apparently it was riddled with gang members and people were honestly afraid to walk outside at any time of the day. As far as gentrification goes, my place hasn’t gotten to a part where the rent is too damn high and it’s still not a fantastic neighborhood (people don’t know how to throw away trash), but I can’t say I’m not thankful for it making my neighborhood safer for me and all the families that are there.