Daniel Fienberg: NBC Should Renew 'The Carmichael Show' Now

Our television critic praises Jerrod Carmichael's Norman Lear-esque sitcom.
Chris Haston/NBC
'The Carmichael Show'

NBC's new summer comedy The Carmichael Show finished its third week Wednesday, which normally would serve as a reasonable time to check in on a show's progress, assess what's working and what needs refinement and to reflect on the future. Instead, completing NBC's second comedy burn-off in less than two months, The Carmichael Show has ended its run, and it moves off into limbo, joining Mr. Robinson, which had its own three-week/six-episode audition in August.

The fate of Mr. Robinson doesn't particularly interest me. Craig Robinson has a varied skill set that was utilized, but ultimately stranded in what would have felt like a tired Head of the Class retread if this were 1988, but just looked like a flat museum piece now.

The future of The Carmichael Show, however, should be of great concern to NBC, a network that finished a journey from must-see TV to perilously close to scrapping its entire comedy lineup last spring. It's the very rare comedy that can establish its voice and format and timing in only six episodes, and The Carmichael Show is a work in progress, but it's the kind of work in progress that NBC should be trying to nurture, the kind of work in progress that a network in search of a comedy brand could point to with pride and say, "See? We're trying something here, something worthwhile."

NBC should renew The Carmichael Show — and renew it with haste because this is the business the network should want to be in, and it's not like the network is awash in alternatives.

Once the home of Cheers and Friends and Will & Grace, but more recently at least the home of low-rated, beloved favorites like Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock and Community, NBC's only returning comedy for the 2015-2016 season is Undateable, which got exactly enough juice from a live stunt in May to earn an entire season of live episodes ... on Friday nights, hardly the best home for a young-skewing ensemble.

Paired with Undateable is Truth Be Told, a limp couples comedy that only deserves credit for being slightly better than NBC's other recent flaccid attempts to channel Norman Lear, including swiftly truncated failures such as Welcome to the Family and One Big Happy. Truth Be Told isn't funny, but you can tell it wants to talk about race and gender, so you want to pat it on the head and be encouraging.

NBC has given Truth Be Told a fall slot, and the network is trying to promote it, which only makes it all the more galling that, in The Carmichael Show, it has a comedy that has similar, albeit loftier, aspirations — and is actually succeeding.

No show should be damned with comparisons to All in the Family after only six episodes, but with The Carmichael Show, at least the comparisons make sense. Created in unlikely fashion by the quartet of Nicholas Stoller, Jerrod Carmichael, Ari Katcher and Willie Hunter, The Carmichael Show has been aggressive in using its traditional and reassuring multicam format to attack big issues and give quality time to debate. The second episode, "Protest," got both humor and then earned emotion from its approach to the Black Lives Matter movement. The third episode, "Kale," used the much-maligned vegetable as a path to talk about economic disparity and food culture. "Gender" forced the main character, loosely based on Neighbors co-star Carmichael, to confront his openmindedness in mentoring a kid who first described himself as gay and then as transgender. Wednesday night's two-episode finale touched first on religion and then on gun control, mostly dodging familiar tropes on both topics.

In each case, the episodes concentrated on an important issue, but then used that issue as a way of looking at relationships and family and the fact that heated communication can be smart but also passionately irrational.

The Carmichael Show has a perspective that's unabashedly liberal, but the more conservative parents aren't treated as caricatures. That's part of what comes from having seasoned co-stars like Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier, veterans who make sure that their characters' perspectives are honored, if only because of how precisely they hit every punchline. Amber Stevens West's Maxine, Jerrod's aspiring-therapist girlfriend, has her left-leaning ideals chided equally. And, positioned as the centrist, Jerrod gets to be the butt of jokes from all sides. The Carmichael Show is built around ideas, but those ideas only sometimes supersede a desire to just make people laugh, both in the studio audience and also within the show. Like Undateable, The Carmichael Show is that rare comedy in which characters sometimes try to amuse each other, generating warmth and making this sitcom family feel like a real family. Quite the opposite of the South Park "everybody is crazy" approach to heated discourse, The Carmichael Show takes the more generous approach of acknowledging that even opinions that seem wrong or dated usually come from somewhere organic and are subject to growth and development over time.

The Carmichael Show is also probably subject to growth and development, even if the presence of sitcom warriors like Mike Royce and Mike Scully on the writing staff have placed it ahead of the curve. Wednesday's "Guns" episode was an example of the writers trying to advance the pacing with shorter scenes and crosscutting between parallel storylines. It was hardly revolutionary stuff, but it was a welcome variation from episodes that played out as three or four stand-alone scenes that often just escalated into characters shouting at each other, much to the approval of the studio audience. Possessed of low-key charm, Carmichael's abilities as a writer outstrip his current level as an actor, while the first set of episodes only sometimes knew what to do with LilRel Howery's Bobby and Tiffany Haddish's Nekeisha.

These elements of uncertainty are exactly the growing pains that you would expect a comedy to have after six episodes, but it's the things The Carmichael Show does well that are so unexpected and so important to foster. If you're a network trying to carve out a new identity, you want shows that aren't afraid to take the audience to uncomfortable places, but are committed to treating ideas seriously in the midst of silliness. You want shows that give all-star performers like Grier and Devine a place to shine and that offer younger stars like Carmichael the chance to find themselves.

NBC shouldn't have burned The Carmichael Show off in this odd late-summer hole, but having given the show this chance to work out these inevitable creative kinks, it should be trying to figure out where season two can go where it might find an audience of its own and might indicate to the creative community that this is what an NBC comedy done right means right now.

The first step would be a well-deserved renewal.

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