Network sitcoms have avoided being topical for such a long time that they have seemingly forgotten how. Perhaps that’s why NBC’s “The Carmichael Show” feels so ungainly, seeking to achieve a balance between tackling timely issues regarding race while allowing plenty of time for jokes about, say, extramarital sex when the central character’s church-going mom strongly objects to it. Over the course of three episodes, some funny moments do emerge, but too often the writing feels as if it’s veering out of its lane to make points instead of doing so organically.
Written by Jerrod Carmichael and Nicholas Stoller (who directed the comic in the movie “Neighbors”), the series stars Carmichael as Jerrod, who has just taken up residence with his girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West). The two are wildly happy, except that he hasn’t broken the news to his parents (David Alan Grier, Loretta Devine), who have strong opinions about everything, almost none of them expressed at anything less than a shout.
Broadly speaking, there’s an Archie-arguing-with-Mike quality to Jerrod’s generational debates with his dad — who doesn’t always toe the progressive line — but this isn’t “All in the Family,” and juggling the sillier comedy with the political messages feels like dealing with serious issues in once-over-lightly fashion, as if the show is name-checking stories like the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., or Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., without having a real conversation about it.
Subsequent episodes are slightly stronger, with Maxine showing up to Jerrod’s birthday in a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt, triggering a debate about the value of such protests. Dad, the iconoclast, doesn’t want his wife to go — only because he sees such rallies as hotbeds of sexual lust — and at one point hails Oprah Winfrey as “the reason black people wake up in the morning.”
Featuring a premiere directed by “The Big Bang Theory’s” Mark Cendrowski, “Carmichael” is an improvement over “Mr. Robinson,” the sitcom that has been keeping the time period warm the past few weeks. Still, its nobler aspirations are ultimately drowned out by its chronic hysteria, as if somebody didn’t trust the show (or the audience) to ratchet down the volume long enough to have a genuinely earnest moment.
Granted, network comedy is in such a sorry state of retreat right now that trying to dial back to the days of Norman Lear represents a rather logical gamble. Yet after watching “The Carmichael Show” mostly stumble through that process, the primary feeling that NBC’s latest sitcom stab evokes is a sense that for topical comedy, anyway, those really were the days.