There is nothing obviously unique about the construction of The Carmichael Show, NBC’s summer sitcom created by and starring comedian Jerrod Carmichael, which managed to get a second-season order on Monday. Filmed, in defiance of current trends, before a live studio audience, The Carmichael Show stars Carmichael as a man forced to deal with his opinionated father, his conservative mother, a slacker brother, and a therapist-in-training live-in girlfriend.
What makes The Carmichael Show stand out is the way that it utilizes those familiar comedic building blocks, assembling stories that mix the mundane elements that make up many family sitcoms with hot-button issues — an uncommon formula, to say the least. Uncommon now, that is.
There’s a long tradition of socially minded sitcoms that goes back to All in the Family, but as other sorts of shows — from those depicting singlehood to the great rebirth of the family sitcom — have risen in prominence, people have largely moved away from topic material, with a few exceptions. That’s why Carmichael‘s willingness to do this right out of the gate speaks to Jerrod Carmichael’s ambition and willingness to make a statement.
Telling stories that center on prayer, gun control, gender identity, police brutality and racism in your first six episodes doesn’t seem like the pathway to longevity and broad acceptance. It seems like something you do when you know that the odds are stacked against any new sitcom — especially one on NBC that doesn’t make the fall schedule — and you want to make the most of the forum while you can. That’s an admirable decision, as has been the way The Carmichael Show has drawn humor from serious topics without trivializing them or preaching to the audience. But while the show deserves applause for what it’s already accomplished, the question has to be asked: What now?
The Carmichael Show‘s short debut season made its dips into social commentary seem refreshing, but there aren’t enough issues to sustain a topic-of-the-week model for a sitcom in the long run. And even if there were, it would be hard to pull it off without turning characters into puppets acting out a weekly dramatization of the news. As impressive as the first season was, The Carmichael Show will be defined by its ability to establish a balance between saying something and telling stories that put the characters front and center without the hook of a major social issue in season two.
Though the interplay between those characters got better as the short season progressed (reaching a high point in “Gun,” the season finale) and Carmichael began to act more than simply react and wait for a chance to crack a joke, there is still room for improvement. Jerrod and his relationships with Joe (David Alan Grier), Cynthia (Loretta Devine), and especially Maxine (Amber Stevens West) need greater definition. Adding additional characters and a work component for Jerrod might help by spreading the comedy around a little, easing the need for the writers to jam fun, but one-note characters like Joe, Cynthia, and Jerrod’s brother Bobby (Lil Rel Howery) into every bit while overextending them.
In short: If The Carmichael Show is going to be the next great topical sitcom, and if it’s going to participate in the national conversation about the issues that matter most, it’s going to have to work to make viewers care more about the characters so that when those characters are confronted by a deeper issue, it affects us in a deeper way.