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It seems like only yesterday that NBC began burning off the half-hour comedy Mr. Robinson (starring Craig Robinson as a musician who teaches at his old neighborhood school), airing two episodes of its six-episode order every Wednesday over three weeks. A similar fate is about to befall The Carmichael Show, which originally was scheduled as the 9:30 p.m. companion to Mr. Robinson. It’s unfortunate, given that this new series shows a lot more promise.
Like Mr. Robinson, The Carmichael Show has an overly familiar sitcom setup: Stand-up Jerrod Carmichael plays a fictional version of himself, modestly successful in both his career and personal life. His girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West), has just moved in with him (they live in Charlotte, N.C.). Not-so-coincidentally, Jerrod’s apartment is in the same building as his loudmouth brother, Bobby (LilRel Howery), who recently has divorced but still is living with his sassy ex-wife (Tiffany Haddish).
Yet most of the siblings’ lives revolve around their parents, Cynthia (Loretta Devine) and Joe (David Alan Grier), who reside in a nearby suburb. Both Mom and Dad possess traits that could be described as Archie Bunker-ish (she’s a devout Bible-thumper, he’s fond of politically incorrect pronouncements), but they also preach the twin gospels of Oprah and Obama. Really, they just exist to keep their sons, and everyone close to them, perpetually on their toes.
The “Pilot” episode is primarily about Jerrod’s fear of introducing his parents to Maxine and telling them about the couple’s new living situation. It’s as boilerplate as you can get, though the cast works very well together, cohering as a discordant family unit with great ease. One especially funny moment comes when Joe casually knocks Maxine’s biracial heritage; you’re reminded of how good Grier can be with cut-to-the-quick quips.
Another episode, titled “Kale,” is concerned with Jerrod’s efforts to get his dad to eat better after a health scare. It builds to the sort of sentimental, hug-it-out resolution you’d expect from a series like this, though the performers manage to spin gold from the little details that govern this particular clan. The way Joe passive-aggressively asserts his patriarchal authority at the dinner table or the manner in which Cynthia constantly uses her naggy brashness (at one point, she humorously describes the eponymous vegetable as having the consistency of a Christmas tree) to avoid serious topics feels very thought-out and lived-in — much less acted than inhabited.
The best of the first three episodes is “Protest,” in which Jerrod’s “surprise” birthday celebration is diminished by news of a rally organized to protest the shooting of an unarmed black teen. Maxine, who sports a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt for most of the episode, is itching to go down and show her support, and she gets Cynthia riled up enough to join her.
It’s tough to find much in the way of humor when it comes to the unjustifiable deaths of people like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown (Jerrod name-checks the former at one point). Yet Carmichael and his writers find a way to balance the laughs — like a very funny moment when Cynthia races off to put on her “civil-rights clothes” — with the unavoidable rawness stirred up by the situation. Even though it’s not a perfect mix, you can see the series The Carmichael Show is striving to be here, and it’s a shame that it likely won’t be able to hone its voice further, given NBC’s vote of no confidence.
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