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The Throwback

Why the socially conscious sitcom The Carmichael Show is still necessary in this golden age of political comedy

There’s nothing quite like the issues-based family sitcom The Carmichael Show on television, but there certainly used to be. With each episode centering on a divisive topic like gun control, Black Lives Matter, or transgender identity, the multi-cam throwback channels the Very Special Episodes of the '80s and '90s, as well as the Norman Lear productions of decades prior. Currently in its second season, the NBC series could claim Black-ish as a slick, distant cousin; both shows tackle universally relevant tensions from an African-American point of view. But star and co-creator Jerrod Carmichael pokes much more often at America’s sorest spots and severest neuroses – and, at his best, illustrates how differences in opinion can strain (or strengthen) familial bonds.

Take last night’s episode, ostensibly about gentrification. Financially comfortable Jerrod (Carmichael) and his aspiring-therapist girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West) discover that they’ve accidentally helped price out Jerrod’s ne’er-do-well brother Bobby (Lil Rel Howery) and his live-in ex-wife Nekeisha (Tiffany Haddish) from their neighborhood. While Maxine becomes engulfed by liberal guilt, the more moderate Jerrod – usually the kind of detached contrarian who delights in devil’s advocacy – characteristically refuses to play the bleeding heart.

“People get knocked down all the time,” he scolds Bobby, “but they get back up and dust themselves off. But no, not you. You just lie there on the ground and complain about how bumpy it is.” Bobby is generally too much the wacky dum-dum for us to take his feelings seriously, but this time his chafing at Jerrod’s obvious sense of superiority ring stingingly true. Jerrod is eventually chided for his callousness by his traditional, religious parents, Cynthia (Loretta Devine) and Joe (David Alan Grier), who remind their younger son that different people react to struggle with different levels of resilience and that the more fragile among us also deserve compassion. The episode’s debate may have been about economic trends, but the drama rightly focused on what the characters’ stances suggest about their priorities and treatment of others.

Carmichael isn’t always so nimble; sometimes the coincidences between plot and subject matter overtax credulity by, say, featuring a cardiac crisis during an episode about the link between poverty and diet. But in this golden age of political comedy, when we’ve got reliably incisive commentary from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, and Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show, is a socially conscious sitcom like The Carmichael Show even necessary?

The answer is a firm yes, even when the series’s broad performances, largely familiar jokes, and slower beats (delayed by laughter from the studio audience — an issue of the multi-camera format) can induce Lewinsky or Iran-Contra flashbacks. The family-friendliness of the sitcom format is, in fact, one of Carmichael’s secret weapons, for it invites audiences into civil and amusing living-room conversations about the issues of the day, rather than an acerbic comedian in a sterile-looking set dishing out zingers with a side of burn. (Kudos to the set designers for Joe and Cynthia’s home, which is recognizably busy with old-fashioned wallpaper and a clutter of pictures, including one of President Obama on the stairwell.)

Maxine probably echoes a certain segment of the population when she admits, “I don’t usually like comedians. They’re usually so mean.” While comedy hosts have to bring a certain voice to the topics at hand, the Carmichael writers tack in the opposite direction, allowing for people who aren’t glued to the news to get several different sides on a single issue by having the characters take different stances. The show’s domestic debates also provide a comforting model of a family that may be split along gender, class, and generational lines, but that can come together by talking things out and displaying the occasional show of emotion.

It’s no less important that we’re seeing hot-button issues interpreted through a black lens. The Bill Cosby episode from two weeks ago, in which Jerrod, Maxine, and his parents debate whether to attend the alleged mass rapist’s comedy show, is one such instance where foregrounding the characters’ race made the script’s tensions more fraught because of Cosby’s well-known contributions to and denigrations of African-American communities. “The Cosby Show was so important,” says Jerrod, who grew up idolizing the comedian. “It brought my family together. It made us realize we could go to college.” But, as usual, Carmichael expands the dialogue and steers it into more uncomfortable territory. Can the idealistic Maxine still maintain the moral high ground if she listens to Michael Jackson or watches Woody Allen movies? Can the family enjoy Ted 2 given Mark Wahlberg’s checkered, problematic past, or Seinfeld after Michael Richards’s use of the n-word? Jerrod initially proposes a familiar response to the Cosby scandal, to separate an artist’s work from his or her personal life. But in that episode’s best scene, Jerrod, who ends up going to the Cosby show, concludes that that separation is much easier said than done.

The Cosby and the Black Lives Matter episodes are two of the show’s finest, but Carmichael doesn’t need to lift from the headlines to be great. Arguably the best installment the show has ever produced was last week’s "The Funeral," which questioned why scumbags like Jerrod’s physically abusive grandfather should be memorialized fondly in public. While Joe prepares a euphemism-filled eulogy for his deadbeat dad, Jerrod needles him relentlessly, prodding him to tell his truth about the deceased man. What follows is a fascinating discussion of the difference between public and private bereavement, with a bonus dig at social-media addicts who perform grief for likes. It also includes one of the series’s funniest lines so far, when the folksy Cynthia encourages her husband to come to terms with his dad’s death: “You can get closure ... or you can just let this grow into prostate cancer. Because that is what prostate cancer is: a man’s issues with his father looking for an outlet.” For the sake of its viewers’ health, long may The Carmichael Show continue exploring the things that we can’t get through on our own.