NBC’s returning sitcom addresses adult social issues head-on, but does so without gratuitous content.
In the second episode of its second season, Jerrod Carmichael, the eponymous main character of The Carmichael Show, surprises his girlfriend Maxine with tickets to that other eponymous, and now infamous, sitcom creator Bill Cosby. The episode follows the fallout and discussions between Jerrod and his family over the limits of separating celebrities from their work, and in doing so shows how different the sitcom medium has become in the past 30 years. It’s a common approach for a show that tackles the social issues in the news head-on and with a comedic bent. If honesty is a virtue, then The Carmichael Show is virtuous, even if it does push the limits of that TV-PG rating from time to time.
The only comedy to survive NBC’s summer release schedule, the show follows Jerrod Carmichael (the actual name of the star and creator) after he moves in with his girlfriend, setting him at odds with his more conservative parents. Each episode has Jerrod or a family member facing a new conflict born of a socially contentious modern issue confronting the country as a whole, which they attempt to navigate with the often dichotomous advice of their fellow family members.
Content-wise, the show is often fairly tame in its specifics, even if the theme is adult. In the first episode of the second season, Maxine and Jerrod’s mother Cynthia return from shopping, where they saw Cynthia’s friend’s husband with another woman. The show becomes a discussion between the family on whether Cynthia should tell her friend. While the subject matter is obviously adult and could be rife with sexual innuendo, the writers are careful to avoid being overt or gratuitous.
That’s because The Carmichael Show’s interest is in the issues, and in presenting an honest discussion between various points of view in trying to untangle the absurd moral knots people can find themselves in. Not only does this allow for a lot of humorous raw material to mine, it allows for it to be done in a smart, relatable way, since the viewer can usually find at least one representative of their own viewpoint in any of the arguments. There’s no doubt that it’s edgier, but the show is also too smart to be gratuitous. This makes it eligible for family viewing, with the caveat that it will appeal more to families with an interest in contentious issues, and who enjoy argument as much as the characters on the show. Compared to most of the sitcoms that have aired recently on NBC, to say nothing of those that attempt the same approach (Truth Be Told, here’s looking at you hopefully disappearing), The Carmichael Show’s ability to face these issues head-on, and in a comedic way that isn’t cringe-worthy but instead feels real, is a true victory.
At the end of the Cosby episode, the family sits around the living room bringing up their favorite episodes of The Cosby Show, and as they each cite some piece of domestic pseudo-wisdom or a funny occurrence from the older show, it brings into stark contrast the major difference between The Carmichael Show and its forebear – a sense of trying to handle the ridiculousness of reality, rather than trying to make reality ridiculous. It’s the hallmark of a more mature, if edgier, modern sitcom.