'The Carmichael Show' Boss Talks Finale Surprise, Cancellation and Series Legacy

"I have a heavy heart that this is it, but I also feel great pride in everything we did for three seasons," showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel tells THR.
Courtesy of NBC
'The Carmichael Show'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the hourlong series finale of NBC's The Carmichael Show.]

The Carmichael Show quietly wrapped its acclaimed three-season run Wednesday with one last surprise twist: The penultimate episode saw Jerrod (star and creator Jerrod Carmichael) and Maxine (Amber Stevens West) get married in a courthouse ceremony on their three-year anniversary (and a night after they partook in a threesome).

"Very much the way we would tell any story about anything, we didn't want to do it in a traditional way or a straightforward way. We wanted to find our own road into it," showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel tells The Hollywood Reporter.

It was another unconventional turn for the NBC sitcom that has been defying conventions since it first premiered in August 2015. Over the course of just 32 episodes, the 20th Century Fox multicamera effort tackled issues ranging from gender to gun control and controversial figures like Bill Cosby and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Despite the show's continued acclaim and headline-generating subject matter, the series was unable to earn a season-four pickup, leaving Wednesday's season-three finale to also serve as the series finale.

THR caught up with Sanchez-Witzel to discuss The Carmichael Show's demise, what would have been in season four and the series' legacy.

How does it feel today knowing tonight is the end? What's going through your head today?

I woke up and I put on my Carmichael season-three T-shirt and wore it into work today on the new show I'm on [Fox's L.A. to Vegas]. I have a heavy heart that this is it, but I also feel great pride in everything we did for three seasons. It's a real mixture of both. I'm missing the cast and my writers and the crew. It's hard when shows are together for multiple seasons and when you carry most of the same people throughout all of that. You say goodbye and that's it. It's like switching schools or something, so it's a really hard thing.

Are you and the cast or the writers doing anything special to mark the end of the show?

I think everyone has been getting together. There are some writers that are going to get together tonight and watch the finale together. Certainly, we've all been talking to each other, and I had a great dinner with Jerrod and [executive producer] Ravi [Nandan] and [co-creator] Ari [Katcher] — the four of us just went out to dinner recently and celebrated everything we had done. So certainly, we are feeling proud and celebratory that we made this many episodes.

What were those last weeks like before the news came? How optimistic were you feeling about a fourth season?

I was not feeling optimistic for a season four, to be honest. It didn't seem like it was in the cards, this is just me, my personal opinion. I was feeling a lot of emotions that season three was ending. It had been a year between airing season two and season three, so I think that told us something in terms of what our fate might be.

There had been talk about the show potentially moving networks. How far did those talks get? How involved were you in those talks?

Really 20th [TV] is amazing and an extremely supportive studio, and I think that they really have always loved the show all the way up to the top. We really felt the support from the studio and there were so many people at NBC network that loved the show, too, just not enough to get it another season. I think Jerrod being the star-creator really took the lead in those conversations and what might or might not happen if NBC was going to cancel it.

Was there any place he mentioned as a strong possibility?

Jerrod, I've never spoken for him before so I'm not going to do it now, but I do know that he has said that he wanted an NBC network TV show and I feel comfortable speaking for him in saying we were really proud of what we did. Certainly, his position was covered in the trades. He felt like the time had come and to focus on what happens next, and he felt like we had kind of reached the end of what the goal was.

The day the news broke and the cast options expired, what conversations did the two of you have?

I had talked to him before that release so I knew how he was feeling. Jerrod and I are good friends and I certainly was in the loop in terms of what was going on with that stuff. I talked to our NBC executives and I knew where everything was as those releases were coming out.

How did you personally come to peace with ending the series at this point and not continuing to look for a new home for a potential fourth season?

I wish the show had gotten more episodes. I wish the show had gotten a chance to air in the fall. I wish it had been behind The Voice. There are a lot of things that I wish could have happened that were always out of our control. I do think airing in the summer, a year between seasons — none of those things ever helped us ever grow an audience. Even with the people who did support us at NBC, there's a lot that I wish could have happened that never did. But writers, showrunners, creators, we don't get to decide that kind of stuff, the business end decides those things. But from how hard we worked and what we were trying to do, I do wish that there had been some other opportunities for people to see our show.

One topic you mentioned wanting to tackle in season four was homelessness. What other issues would you have liked to discuss on the show had you come back?

All kinds of stuff. Maybe nuclear war is something we would have talked about. Who knows what we would have talked about? Planned Parenthood being defunded and the different characters we have would have certainly had something to say. There was an episode about travel and terrorism and fear and where our characters fell with regard to broadening their horizons. We talked about an episode where they were all going to go to Paris but Joe [David Alan Grier] and Cynthia [Loretta Devine] backed out, and Jerrod was mad because he paid for it. There were lots of things to talk about. Certainly, I don't think we would have run out of interesting topics.

We were heading in a direction for Maxine and Jerrod's relationship. We had plans for that, that we would have liked to continue to explore. And Bobby's [Lil Rel Howery] character, we ended him in a place where he was finding himself. I'm glad that we had the opportunity do it. Tiffany Haddish's character, Nekeisha, we were able to feature her a bit more in season three and that certainly would have continued to happen in season four.

People watching found out that Joe had a son before Jerrod and Bobby, so that was a character we would have certainly made plans to continue to look at how that affected [their family] and potentially meet him. We certainly approached the season as if there was going to be more.

After Jerrod and Maxine tied the knot, would there have been talk about kids next season?

We didn't get that far. I think we would have waited on that. Jerrod certainly has some funny things in his stand-up that's he working on in regards to kids. He has a lot of nieces and nephews. So I do think that it's possible. There were some ideas we kicked around this season, not about them having kids necessarily but Jerrod's desire to have kids. I'm sure we would have found some sort of topic that would have explored that. But I don't know that they would have had kids. Maybe when we do the Christmas movie. (Laughs.)

How did you pick these episodes to serve as the last two?

We didn't know. All we had was a gut feeling. We didn't start airing until end of May when we were completely done. So we had to do what we always do which is just try to tell a good half-hour story. Every week, that was always our first goal. We did have it in mind because we had to do what any show has to do if you don't have a pickup — you kind of have to think about, 'What if this is it?' We said, "How do we want these characters to end things?" We did finish the season with that in mind and specifically wrote these episodes to be the last two, which is a little bit different for us because usually they can go in any order but we were very mindful of, 'If this was it, what do we want to leave people with?'

Looking back at the entire run, what episode or story are you most proud of doing and why?

There are so many. The first thing that always comes to mind for me is really the Cosby episode, partly because we were told we couldn't [do it] in the beginning and Jerrod and I really, really felt strongly that we had a good angle on it. It was a struggle to explain and very much to NBC's credit, and 20th, they kept an open mind. I will specifically say that [NBC Entertainment president] Jen Salke kept an open mind and allowed us to explore it. I was really proud that we were able to tell that story. I actually think that the message of that story — talent versus morals and where we are as a society with that, which came directly from Jerrod's stand-up — that was a really good episode that we were proud of and just had so many obstacles to get to tell it.

This season, the "Yes Means Yes" episode about consent and the rape culture that we're living in now — we knew we had a really good angle. That was written by Kevin Barnett and Josh Rabinowitz, who had the original idea and a really good take. So I'm proud that we were a show that was able to talk about things like that.

Two episodes that stand out performance-wise for me were "The Funeral" episode, when David Alan Grier, Joe's dad, dies in season two, and also "The Blues" episode, when Cynthia's dealing with depression. We were so blessed to have actors that could handle that type of material, and not just handle but elevate it. Sometimes we'd be standing onstage in the run-through and you'd just get chills: "I can't believe what I'm watching. We're watching masters at work in this theater environment."

Given the caliber of the cast and all the stars that have broken out, who would you like to speak with about other projects?

This cast is so talented, so yes, I think that would be very smart to leave the door open for that. I'd be grateful if they did the same for me. Lil Rel in the No. 1 breakout movie this year with Get Out and Tiffany is just hysterical in Girls Trip. And Amber, who is such a talent and such a pro, I'm happy that 20th knew that and that she's going to be in Ghosted. I'm not surprised that she was [booked] immediately. I absolutely would work with anyone on our cast again. I think that these are movie stars, these are TV stars and it's another reason that it stings a little that the show isn't making more episodes, just because there was so much talent on that stage.

What are you looking to do next? What are you hoping to develop?

I'm kind of in the early stages. I always am someone who likes to talk about real life and real things. I was on My Name Is Earl for a lot of years and I felt like that was a show — even though that world was heightened — we talked about real things and real feelings and I like doing that. I'm early on in what I'm going to do, but no matter what I do, it will be in the world of real-life problems. Cheers is my all-time favorite show and, when you think about who those characters are, that is a recovered alcoholic who owns a bar who's just looking to be loved and to figure out how to be loved. It's simple and complex at the same time. I like to deal with people's real problems, so I'll be in that world somehow again.

Finally, what do you hope The Carmichael Show's legacy is?

I hope that people thought it was funny, because I think that's what we were ultimately trying to be is funny. I think we were trying to have interesting conversations, so I wouldn’t mind if people liked it or didn't like it as long as they thought the conversations were interesting. It made them laugh and it was worth talking about. And maybe watching an episode made them have a conversation with someone else — just that it made you talk about something with your family, with your friends that might have felt too hard to talk about.

We, both Jerrod and I, had a couple of teachers come up to us and tell us that they used our "Gender" episode from season one in their classroom. There was another episode, too, that someone came up and told Jerrod that, I think it was "Yes Means Yes" in a high school environment. It's not what we were trying to do, but what we were trying to do was have intelligent conversations where there were six different points of view because at the heart, our show was about a family who doesn't always see eye-to-eye but it's important to push each other in your foundation and your thoughts and what your opinions are. It's what Jerrod's comedy, in my opinion, does — it just pushes people out of their comfort zone to see where they are. There's no right or wrong. Our favorite stories always ended in gray territory where you can't say one character was right and one character was wrong. It just is. 

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