NBC’s The Carmichael Show is funny. It’s easy to forget that detail when lauding a show that has an uncommon aptitude for tackling real topics in a frank way. But of all the shows that have demonstrated that ability recently (like Black-ish and Mom), none take their self-imposed responsibility more seriously or find a way to jam in as much comedy per square inch as this summer-sitcom made good from the minds of stand-up comic Jerrod Carmichael, Neighbors director Nicholas Stoller, and showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel. Something made crystal clear by the two episodes that were made available to critics, including tonight’s preview episode which focuses on secrecy within a relationship and the ways we can build up inaccurate views of our significant others.
This doesn’t mean The Carmichael Show is perfect, though. The show has turned me into a fan of its easy, conversational comedy and the unforced (which wasn’t always the case last season) sitcom jokes that co-star David Alan Grier (who plays Carmichael’s father) is so adept at sneaking into the middle of a serious conversation. But I worry that its focus on weighty matters will eventually cause it to run out of road. There are a lot of issues in the world, but the list isn’t infinite. I also worry that people are eventually going to start reading praise-filled reviews about its hearty talks and balanced approach to the touchy subjects we’re all talking about and write the show off — sight-unseen — as being preachy. It usually isn’t. What The Carmichael Show is, however, is a show that is defined by its ability to fold the big issues into a traditional sitcom. But is that enough?
As I’ve stated before, I’d love to see the show branch out and show Jerrod’s main character at work. I’d love to see new characters and a stronger focus on Jerrod and Maxine’s (Amber Stevens West) relationship away from the Carmichael clan — because no one spends all their time hanging out at their parents’ house with their family and their girlfriend. However, it feels weird to beg for convention while praising The Carmichael Show‘s novelty and intellectual bravery.
It probably speaks to my own potential for cynicism when I assume a show can only last if it becomes more like other shows that have found longevity. I spoke to Carmichael for an interview that we’ll run on Friday, and while he didn’t dismiss the possibility that the show might broaden itself at some point, he also didn’t seem interested in making someone else’s show. Jerrod Carmichael, it seems, favors being good and being true. Or, more accurately, he seems to believe that he can be those things and be successful. He isn’t a freedom fighter for the cause of smart, issue-based television. He’s a guy who thinks network sitcoms can be smarter and that they should reflect our real lives more than they do. And that’s refreshing.
Tonight’s preview episode is a great example of the kind of smart and relatable television that The Carmichael Show is capable of creating. Carmichael has noticeably improved as an actor, graduating to actor-comedian status this season thanks to an obvious uptick in confidence and a newfound ease trading lines with pros like Grier and Loretta Devine (who plays his mother). The show also benefits from the overall improvement in chemistry of a cast that’s grown more comfortable together. But, really, it all comes down to priorities. The Carmichael Show doesn’t treat its awkward/semi-serious moments like some kind of pass through on the way to its big jokes. The jokes are there (and they’re sharp and plentiful), but they’re a vital adornment to the conversation that the show is trying to have, not the main component, even when it seems impossible that an episode’s topic can provide a clean pathway to laughter.
I don’t want to spoil too much about the official season premiere. (Which airs Sunday, after the special preview tonight. This isn’t at all confusing.) But it’s already out there that The Carmichael Show decided it wanted to dance near the pop-culture third rail and have a conversation about Bill Cosby and hero worship. And yet, despite the provocativeness of the topic, the approach is reasoned and the execution is solid. Will there be controversy? Absolutely, and I did wince a couple of times during the episode. But it also forces a conversation about our ability and desire to consume art when the artist behind it offends our moral code. And that kind of reaction is part of the point of The Carmichael Show — it’s not about expressing the show’s opinion, but about getting people thinking and talking. It’s also, let me remind you once more, about being funny.
The Carmichael Show returns for its second season tonight at 10:30 p.m. ET for a special preview before its official premiere on Sunday, March 13 at 9 p.m. ET.