Critic's Notebook: Appreciate 'The Carmichael Show' Now While You Can

NBC's 'Carmichael Show' tackles big issues smartly and has an ensemble of up-and-coming stars. Now what will it take to get you to watch the third season?
Chris Haston/NBC
'The Carmichael Show'
Like the residents of Dante's first circle of Hell, The Carmichael Show has spent a lot of time in Limbo. 
 
Because it launched way back in August 2015, The Carmichael Show has the unlikely status of being the current NBC comedy with the most seniority (though Superstore has passed it in terms of episodes aired). But nothing has ever been easy for this topically engaged multicam. The first season aired over only three weeks as late-summer fill-in programming. After a bit of a wait to renew, NBC picked up a second season and then held it until March of last year and stuck episodes in a somewhat odd Sunday slot, before again holding off on a formal renewal announcement. That pickup was over a year ago. Not to jump to conclusions regarding feelings about The Carmichael Show within the hallways of NBC, but the third season will launch Wednesday (May 31) night, two weeks after NBC's upfront presentation announced the network's 2017-18 schedule to advertisers. 
 
 
That The Carmichael Show hasn't been renewed for a fourth season isn't surprising. It's not a high-rated show and we live in a TV world in which its co-ownership through 20th Television isn't an asset for NBC. However, when NBC went through its comedy highlight reel at upfronts, The Carmichael Show actually was featured in several clips, a presence that certainly wasn't inevitable.
 
So with The Carmichael Show premiering, yet again, in limbo, this feels like a fair time to remind y'all about one of the most audacious comedies on television. The first two seasons, only 19 episodes, are available to watch on Netflix and it's not one of those shows that requires continuity to be appreciated. You can watch Wednesday's premiere episodes and I bet you'll be able to figure out what's happening. But if you don't tune in, there's a pretty good chance the network TV landscape could lose one of its most daring voices. When that happens, you don't get to complain, "Why don't broadcast networks make shows that are ABOUT something?" Because this is a broadcast show that's about a lot of somethings.
 
Despite positive reviews dating back to its premiere, I would never accuse NBC of being overwhelmingly invested in The Carmichael Show, either in terms of scheduling or promotion. I've seen very few advertisements for the new season, but I can't say whether that's because I'm watching less NBC or because there have been fewer commercials and billboards and whatnot. I don't watch The Voice, for example, and NBC could be saturation-bombing those ad breaks with Carmichael Show trailers, the best promotion NBC could give the show short of actually airing it in-season and after The Voice, when people might actually watch it. I have my doubts, but I just don't know.
 
The reality is that there has never been a better time to push The Carmichael Show to the masses.
 
Star and co-creator Jerrod Carmichael has only added to a profile as one of the great up-and-coming voices in stand-up, and he has a role of some size in Transformers: The Last Knight, a little indie film sure to make a horrifying amount of money this summer.
 
Lil Rel Howery was one of the breakout stars of the spring smash Get Out. He's been a stand-up favorite for the better part of a decade, but there's an audience that maybe didn't know he existed six months ago that would say, "Oh! It's the TSA guy from Get Out!" if only NBC gave them that option.
 
Tiffany Haddish hasn't had quite the same breakout. Maybe if Keanu had been a bigger hit? But she's right on the brink with appearances on The High Court With Doug Benson and Animal Planet's Animal Nation. Each time I see the trailer for the summer comedy Girls Trip, it gets huge laughs and she gets the biggest laughs. If you haven't already bought stock in Haddish, it won't be affordable come September, so get in now!
 
Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier are national treasures, and I'm not saying this is a good time to get on the Devine/Grier bandwagon simply because there's probably never been a bad time.
 
I'm also not leaving out Amber Stevens West. She's talented and funny and you can always get bonus points at parties for knowing that her dad is Shadoe Stevens. Also, eventually that Greek reunion movie is going to air on Freeform and won't we all be happy? Yes, we will. [She's also married to Gareth from The Walking Dead, which I hadn't realized until he showed up at a Carmichael Show table read event last month.]
 
The show's entire cast is collectively cresting. 
 
From the beginning, The Carmichael Show took creative risks and approached topics of seriousness with intellect, respect and, yes, humor. Initially tackling gun control, religion and healthy eating in the black community emboldened the writers for a strong second season that included buzzy episode subjects like debating support for Bill Cosby or Donald Trump. Those were the "big" episodes last year, but I actually preferred episodes like "The Funeral," about the death of Joe's (Grier) father and "The Blues," in which Cynthia (Devine) confronts depression and its surrounding stigma. Those two episodes would have positioned Grier and Devine for Emmy nominations in a fairer world. 
 
NBC has sent out screeners for the first five episodes of the third season, already a sign of at least some interest in seeing critics say nice things about the show.
 
I'm happy to oblige.
 
These five episodes find The Carmichael Show pushing into more thematically extreme territory. I think I'd venture to say that at times big laughs take a back seat in the process of figuring out how to make even tougher subjects generally funny. Carmichael and his creative team are very consciously attempting to raise the ante on what they've done before. I respect that ambition even if the writers are surely leaving some easier laughs on the table in an effort to expand boundaries. 
 
 
Take, for example, the gun-control episode from the first season. That plot hinged basically on Jerrod owning a gun and Joe owning a gun and the respective women in their lives being displeased. It's a simple 2nd Amendment meets common sense argument that ensues, with very limited stakes. This season, the episode "Shoot-Up-Able" finds Jerrod witnessing a shooting at a local mall and initially being unfazed, before coming to realize the PTSD that comes from being proximate to tragedy. Not only is it an episode that steers into potential postponement should anything comparable happen in the real world, it makes jokes about how people react to these repeated tragedies. That isn't the same as making jokes about the tragedies themselves, but it's a hard fence to straddle and a hard distinction for audiences to make. It's also an episode that relies very heavily on Carmichael's gifts as a lead actor. It's an understated and effective performance, but one that takes a source of punchlines out of commission for much of the 22 minutes. The season-one gun-control episode was just edgy and smart, but this season's episode dares to make it emotional and personal.
 
Or take the journey from "The Funeral" in the second season to this season's "Grandma Francis." Both episodes feature exceptional guest star Marla Gibbs, but "The Funeral" had the advantage of distance. Joe's father died without us ever having met the character and Joe grappled with the conflicting feelings of being in mourning but not feeling the need to grieve. Joe's dad was a bad man and that was a safe remove for viewers to watch a great actor go through complicated feelings. In "Grandma Francis," though, his beloved mother announces in the first five minutes that she'd rather die than continue to fight Alzheimer's. The pragmatism of the show's approach to euthanasia remains, but the emotional ambiguity of the characters' responses is gone. The backdrop of the episode is strictly sad and yet the writers find an amusing way to approach the issue. It helps that Grier is, once again, superb.
 
If this were diving or gymnastics, I might give a higher score for execution to the initial episodes, but these new episodes have a greater degree of difficulty. 
 
In that respect, both episodes pale in comparison to "Yes Means Yes," the third-season opener. A rhetorical dig into consent and rape, into female fears and male insecurity, the episode flirts with danger repeatedly and misses slightly on a couple jokes, but it comes through as worthy both for how it broaches the subject in the first place, and then for how it specifically deals with it. It's probably Howery's best episode to date, benefitting tremendously from a couple Haddish one-liners, and it really showcases the attributes of a multicam format built around usually only two or three scenes and two or three sets per episode.
 
The Carmichael Show is part of a wave of issue-oriented sitcoms that bear the influence of Norman Lear and also often carry his endorsement. Should NBC not move forward with a fourth season of The Carmichael Show, TV wouldn't become a wasteland for the genre. Black-ish and Survivor's Remorse have been doing good work in the field for several years. CBS' Mom can air two or three frivolous episodes in a row and then drop in a serious episode that utterly floors me. One Day at a Time made a big splash with its first season on Netflix in January. The progressive approach of ABC's Speechless, a surplus of heart and can-do attitude, deserves to have more people talking about it. NBC's Superstore isn't always about the socioeconomic plight of minimum-wage workers, but it's better when it is. CBS' Superior Donuts didn't always (or often) find the best ways to make its Very Special Episodes work, but darned if it didn't try.
 
So we'll survive if The Carmichael Show doesn't come back next year. I've made my peace with it. Still, this NBC comedy is among the best at what it does. You should check out the cast and these big swings now and appreciate The Carmichael Show while you can.
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