Earlier this summer, NBC made a last-minute schedule switch on sitcoms “Mr. Robinson” and “The Carmichael Show.” Originally set to air together over six weeks, NBC instead turned them into mini-binges – or, more realistically, super-fast Summer Burn-Off Theatre – by having “Mr. Robinson” air as a double feature for three weeks, followed by “Carmichael Show” doing the same. This seemed like a weird reshuffling of the deck chairs on a pair of sinking ships: both shows had been in development in some form or other for two years and were already being dumped at a time late in the summer when even broadcast executives who boast about year-round programming don't like to debut things.
But the strange approach may have worked. “Mr. Robinson” was terrible, but its ratings were surprisingly decent and it could get renewed. And by splitting the two shows up, NBC did a favor to “Carmichael Show,” which is a sharper, more thoughtful, and just plain funnier version of the kind of retro multi-cam sitcom “Mr. Robinson” was trying to be. Aired back-to-back, “Mr. Robinson” could have tainted “Carmichael Show” (it debuts tomorrow night at 9 & 9:30) by association; on its own (even over the doggiest days of summer), the latter show gets to serve as a reminder that you can be a throwback to something good if you try hard enough.
Stand-up comic Jerrod Carmichael (who serves as executive producer with Nicholas Stoller and Ravi Nandan) plays a fictionalized version of himself, living in Charlotte and just having moved in with girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West from “Greek”). He wants to keep this development a secret from parents Joe and Cynthia (David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine), who are pushy, judgmental, and don't respect boundaries; it's the same reason brother Bobby (Lil Rel Howery) hasn't told them he got divorced.
The show is so old-school that, if Joe and Cynthia's living room isn't actually a redecorated version of Ray and Debra Barone's, then the set decorator is at least a big “Everybody Loves Raymond” fan. Everybody gets into everybody else's business, people aren't shy about insulting family to their face (Maxine's name quickly becomes a verb referring to screwing something up), and the studio audience eats it all up.
But the show also has a clear comic voice, and wants to be about more than just familiar family hijinks. In the first episode, Jerrod tries to head off all discussion of his new living situation by distracting the others with the question of whether Barack Obama has been a good president. Tomorrow's second episode (the best of the three sent to critics) is essentially about Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement, and manages to incorporate those weighty subjects into a traditional sitcom context in a way that neither diminishes them nor grinds the comedy to a halt. Instead, it becomes a generational clash about different protest eras, with Cynthia dismissing the rally she attends as being more like a street fair than a call to action.
Noting the DJ hired to stir up the crowd, she complains, “You don't play music on a laptop at a protest! You sing! Everybody knows that!”
When Jerrod complains about a time he was stopped by cops while doing nothing wrong, Joe invites him to demonstrate the way he was walking that night, and comes to the conclusion that his son does, indeed, have a suspicious way of moving. And the show manages to transition from the rawness of Jerrod's memory to the goofiness of Joe critiquing his walk in a way that doesn't feel jarring. It's a neat trick, and the whole story is helped enormously by the presence of Grier and Devine, who can play big but know where to draw the line so that their characters are still recognizably human for when that's required.
Politics and sitcom punchlines can be a volatile mixture. Do it right, and you've got “All in the Family” or “Maude” or even “Parks and Recreation,” which took on the dysfunctional state of modern government in a pointed but silly way. Do it wrong and you've got some of the more self-congratulatory moments of “Last Man Standing” or “2 Broke Girls.”
Three episodes in, “Carmichael Show” isn't yet a worthy successor to the Norman Lear legacy. There are times when it's still figuring out its tone, and the relative intelligence level of each character (Bobby in particular), and the Black Lives Matter episode is the only one of the three that clicks from start to finish. But it clicks in a way that's a very satisfying reminder of why sitcoms – especially one with an all-black cast in a time of deep racial divides in America – shouldn't always run from current events.
Comedy is always better when it's about something. That something can be the extreme minutiae of life (as on “Raymond” or “Seinfeld”), or the absurdity of show business (“30 Rock”), or about the larger world in which we live. But you should have a more fundamental reason for existence beyond being a punchline delivery system. “The Carmichael Show” seems to understand that, and given the sorry, diminished state of NBC's comedy brand, I hope it does well enough over the next three weeks to stick around long enough live up to the potential that's obvious in these early installments.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org