NBC’s unexpected renewal of “The Carmichael Show,” a multi-camera sitcom that got an obscure, late-summer tryout last year, was a smart move. The retro-flavored laugher employs the moves of classic TV comedies in amusing and intelligent ways, and as NBC attempts to re-establish its scattered comedy brand, it’s wise to use this pleasing program as one of its building blocks. “The Carmichael Show” is proof that there’s a lot of life yet left in multicams, as long as they breezily combine competence with nicely crafted observations and a dash of irreverence.
In “The Carmichael Show,” old and new meet in a number of ways. The series’ barely-there premise has Jerrod (Jerrod Carmichael) interacting with his old-school mom and dad (Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier) while navigating a relationship with his kale-loving, psychology-student girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West). The action, what there is of it, takes place in Jerrod’s unfussy apartment, or in the traditionally laid-out kitchen and living room of his parents’ North Carolina home.
But as was the case with many classic sitcoms of the ’70s and ’80s (and a few that air now), the simple sets matter far less than what happens inside them. “The Carmichael Show,” which is clearly influenced by the comedies of Norman Lear (among others), simply listens in as a fractious but essentially loving group of characters laugh at each other and themselves as they debate small things happening within the family and big events occurring in the world.
In its first season, and now the second, the show has proven especially adept at scattering pointed jokes into every debate, whether it’s about police brutality or Jerrod’s attempts to get his father to eat better. There may not be much in the way of tension — a character walking across a room is about as exciting as the show gets — but that’s not the point. The sprightly writing is the show’s energy source, and it infuses the program with a welcome curiosity and an unwillingness to take itself too seriously.
That tendency to keep things on the lighter side can, on occasion, trip the show up. In the second episode of the new season, family members wrestle with the idea of going to a Bill Cosby performance, and though the episode is reasonably sound, it could have used a bit more heft and insight. It’s not that the show plays down Cosby’s alleged crimes — it does not — but the episode doesn’t really grapple with the malevolent nature of the acts he is accused of, nor with the damage and pain endured by the 55 women who have come forward (to the comedy’s credit, characters repeat that number more than once).
Part of the issue may be Carmichael himself, a successful standup and one of the show’s creators. He has a laid-back, appealing warmth as a performer, and he is a better actor than he was last year, when his newness to scripted TV was readily apparent. That said, he’s still not at the level of his enormously skilled co-stars, especially Grier and Devine. Carmichael’s occasional tentativeness as a performer is notable in the Cosby episode, which calls for an ability to play many levels and ideas in rapid succession, something the actor can’t quite manage in this instance.
Still, the episode isn’t bad; it just falls a somewhat short of the high goals the writers clearly had for it. All things considered, however, the series’ willingness to take on tough topics, and its ability to generally avoid cliches and crass jokes while doing so, is one of the things that sets it apart in a very crowded TV landscape. As many critics pointed out, “Black-ish” did a fine job of talking through a difficult topic in its Feb. 24 episode on police brutality, but with its excellent 2015 episode “Protest,” “The Carmichael Show” acquitted itself just as well on the same subject. In its second season, it’s clear that “The Carmichael Show” has no plans to back away from similar challenges.
As the show progresses this year, it’ll be interesting to see if the sitcom gives West a bit more to do; Maxine tends to be written as the noble-minded voice of reason, which restricts her ability to engage with the show’s sillier and more subversive sides. Otherwise, it’s generally impressive to see how much the ensemble has gelled in such a short period. It’s not possible to say enough good things about Devine and Grier, whose comic timing is never less than impeccable, and Lil Rey Howery and Tiffany Haddish likewise make the most of their screen time as Jerrod’s brother Bobby and former sister-in-law Nekeisha.
“The Carmichael Show” does not set out to re-invent the comedy wheel, but it proves that paying attention to the basics and generally writing to the strengths of a well-calibrated ensemble can pay major dividends. The continuing existence of this lively, well-crafted series is something of a miracle, and so far, it’s one worth celebrating.
There’s a discussion of “The Carmichael Show” (as well as “Agent Carter,” “Of Kings and Prophets,” “And Then There Were None” and “The Americans”) on the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, below and on iTunes.