Because TV storytelling has evolved in so many ways over the years, it's easy to think of that growth as a straight line angled ever upward. But it's more a series of peaks and valleys, and sometimes huge progress is followed by sharp regression; look at how ABC's American Crime has to clumsily mute dialogue featuring words that NYPD Blue used casually 20 years ago on the same network.
In terms of form and style, sitcoms are more complex than they've ever been. But when it comes to the subjects they tackle, in many ways the genre is less advanced than it was back in the early-mid '70s, when Norman Lear sitcoms like All in the Family, Maude, and Good Times tackled race, class, and politics in a far blunter fashion than most of what followed on the networks over the next few decades. Occasionally, other producers would talk about being influenced by Lear, and even more occasionally, their shows (say, Roseanne) would live up to that talk, but fear of chasing away viewers over divisive topical issues meant that Archie Bunker's descendants (say, Al Bundy on Married… with Children) tended to be crass but apolitical.
One of the benefits to the ever-splintering TV audience is that the philosophy of attracting the most viewers by offending the least no longer really applies. Almost everything's a niche, even on the big broad networks, and as a result we're in the midst of a Lear-esque renaissance – including Lear himself working on a One Day at a Time remake with a Latino cast for Netflix – with series unafraid to let their characters argue about the same polarizing subjects their viewers deal with, including Black-ish (whose recent Black Lives Matter episode was a triumph), Fresh Off the Boat, and NBC's Carmichael Show, whose second season begins tonight at 10. (It's a sneak preview using The Voice as a lead-in; starting this weekend, episodes will air Sundays at 9 & 9:30.)
NBC debuted Carmichael Show – co-created by and starring comedian Jerrod Carmichael – in the dog days of last summer, which is usually a signal of a series best ignored by all. Instead, it was promising from the start: a throwback not only to Lear, as the characters debated the merits of the Obama administration and police shooting incidents in Ferguson and elsewhere, but to good multi-camera family sitcoms in general, with Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier particularly sharp and versatile as Jerrod's mom and dad. On a less ambitious show, these intrusive, opinionated parents would be broad caricatures; on this one, they're loud but emotionally and politically complicated.
The first two episodes of the new season don't suggest a huge creative leap – Carmichael is still finding his way as an actor, for instance, though the creative team recognizes that he's best used to say incendiary things that his co-stars can react to – but even if it never improves from its original baseline, it's funny and well-crafted enough to be worth watching for more than just its ambitions.
Tonight's episode, for instance, kicks off with Mrs. Carmichael wondering whether to tell a friend if her husband is cheating. This leads, like all Carmichael Show topics do, to a protracted debate involving Mr. Carmichael, Jerrod, Jerrod's girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West), his brother Bobby (Lil Rel howery), and Bobby's ex-wife Nekeisha (Tiffany Haddish), all of whom have their own opinions and biases on the matter. Jerrod, for instance, suggests that adultery is a socio-economic issue – you have to have enough money to afford a mistress on top of your wife – while Maxine, who has some personal experience with the subject, thinks Jerrod's take is ridiculous.
The first of Sunday night's episodes, meanwhile, tackles Bill Cosby and whether Jerrod should still be allowed to enjoy the comedy of a man who appears to be a serial predator of women. On the one hand, if any show has a right to tackle this, it's an NBC sitcom inspired by its African-American star's stand-up comedy act. On the other hand, the topic is so raw and ugly that it would be easy to understand why Carmichael Show, or any current TV comedy, wanted to avoid it entirely.
As it is, the studio audience reaction to that episode is much more muted than to previous installments – even the Ferguson one – even though the structure and jokes (including a very funny bit where Nekeisha, who hasn't heard about any of the Cosby accusations, reads his Wikipedia page) are on par with the others. There are some ideas that even fans of an explicitly topical sitcom have trouble laughing about.
But Carmichael Show wouldn't be Carmichael Show if it didn't try things like that. It's good to have it back on the air.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org