NBC’s The Carmichael Show is, like CBS’ Mom and Netflix’s One Day at a Time, a ’70s throwback: a traditional multi-camera sitcom that’s not only comfortable getting dramatic and tackling important issues of the day, but that’s usually better when it’s doing that than when it’s telling more basic comedy stories. But where those other descendants of All in the Family and Good Times excel in the heavier moments because they’re simply better at drama, Carmichael Show is actually funnier the darker the subject matter gets.
NBC sent critics the first five episodes of the third season, which debuts tonight at 9 with two episodes. (Later weeks will feature only one.) They tackle, in order, rape and the importance of verbal consent, what it means to “support the troops,” assisted suicide, mass shootings, and whether it’s fair to judge people on their looks. The troops and looks stories are the two most likely to be featured on other comedies; not coincidentally, the jokes don’t land nearly as well as they do in the other three.
There’s something about the collision of loud sitcom punchlines with incredibly difficult topics that’s made Carmichael Show one of TV’s best and most unexpected comedies. Filled with with familiar setup/punchline rhythms most of the time, and performers — especially Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier as the parents — playing to the cheap seats of the live studio audience, it nonetheless is able to offer nuanced, multi-dimensional arguments about complicated societal issues, to have different members of the family take surprising positions on them that are usually well-argued (even Lil Rel Howery’s sweet but dim Bobby gets to be right now and then), and pepper jokes in between the talking points in a way that undercuts neither part of the conversation.
It’s a remarkable trick pulled off by star Jerrod Carmichael and the series’ other writers, but one that requires the seemingly contradictory elements to be balanced just right. If the stakes are too low, or the subject matter too easily incorporated into a less adventurous show, then Carmichael Show becomes just another old-school multi-cam: energetic and charming, and still amusing just through the sheer energy and talent of the cast (which still includes Amber Stevens West as Jerrod’s liberal girlfriend Maxine and Tiffany Haddish as Bobby’s ex-wife Nekeisha), but pleasantly disposable. But when the story is like the season’s third installment, where Jerrod and Bobby’s Grandmother Francis (Marla Gibbs, whose time on The Jeffersons draws a direct line from this show to the Norman Lear ’70s classics) announces that she plans to kill herself before she slips further into dementia, Carmichael Show not only becomes more moving (Grier in particular is great in that one), but the weightiness of the story puts the jokes into sharper contrast: It comes as a relief to hear Bobby compare the Bible to an Apple user agreement (“You just gotta skim through it and you gotta accept it”), or to have Jerrod question Francis’ desire to start watching Empire on the night she intends to die, and those lines all play like the characters are also trying very hard not to fully reckon with the matter in front of them.
The third season so far feels of a piece with the first two — including NBC’s ambivalent scheduling of it, this time a week after the official network TV season has ended — but with some tweaks. The long hiatus, and uncertainty about when the season might debut, meant the writers couldn’t get too topical, so there are a few stray jokes about President Trump in the support the troops episode, but not a full episode on the subject like black-ish did (or like Carmichael Show did last season when Trump was still a longshot candidate). As an actor, Carmichael has usually been this show’s Jerry Seinfeld: there to stir the pot and set up other characters through Jerrod’s contrarian takes on each issue (Jerrod is often, if we’re being charitable, a jerk, albeit one who’s good for keeping the debate and jokes moving), but not really in the class of his co-stars. He’s still not as relaxed or natural a thespian as Grier or Devine, but he’s also able to shoulder much of the dramatic load of the fourth episode, which is about the rest of the family trying to get Jerrod to talk about surviving a shooting incident at the mall.
Few sitcoms are built to handle the kind of provocative content that The Carmichael Show embraces as its reason for being. At best, they would turn the assisted suicide story into a Very Special Episode where the audience sniffled, called their own grandparents, then hoped for something the following week that would make them laugh again. Carmichael not only keeps the jokes flying the whole time, but makes them better when it’s at its most Very Special.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org