On Sunday, NBC’s The Carmichael Show aired an episode that would have been a shocking departure for any other sitcom. “Perfect Storm” begins with a couple, Jerrod and Maxine (played by Jerrod Carmichael and Amber Stevens West), going out to buy emergency contraception after a condom breaks during sex. Because of a serious storm, they’re diverted to his parents’ house, and Jerrod’s religious mother, Cynthia (Loretta Devine), objects when she finds out about their plan, prompting a discussion about a woman’s right to choose, family planning, and Jerrod’s own fears about being a parent one day. It’s the kind of episode that could easily feel stagey or polemical, but Carmichael works hard to keep things as natural as possible.
That’s been his goal since creating the series, which premiered last year. Like its obvious classic-sitcom influences (from All in the Family to The Cosby Show), The Carmichael Show tries to dig into topical material every week, while strictly avoiding any sense that it’s talking down to its audience or teaching them a valuable lesson. “I just wanted an adult show, a show that a smart adult would feel comfortable watching,” Carmichael told me. “We have these real conversations every day, and then we turn the television on and it doesn’t reflect that.” Literally and figuratively, The Carmichael Show is a grown-up family sitcom, one that doesn’t look to pander for quick laughs or sanitized moments of togetherness.
In “Perfect Storm,” Maxine can’t get Plan B because the drugstore is closed thanks to the hurricane, so her friend Nekeisha (Tiffany Haddish) brings her the medication, which Cynthia promptly flushes away in a fit of pique. It’s a tense moment and one that plays on the larger discussion about Maxine’s control over her own body. Though the show never devolves into histrionic yelling or crying, it lets the dramatic moments breathe as much as the funny ones—something Carmichael says was a critical component in his approach to the series.
“We always try and build stories that will create the most tension around the topic,” he says. “Perspective is everything for me and the writers.” The subject matter also comes from a “very organic place”—whenever the show’s writers find themselves arguing passionately about an issue, they try to work it into an episode. With Jerrod, Maxine, Cynthia, Nekeisha, Jerrod’s father, Joe (David Alan Grier), and his brother, Bobby (Lil Rel Howery), The Carmichael Show always has several defined voices it can bounce between when a topic is being debated. The forum is almost always Jerrod’s parents’ home in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the series is set; the show rarely spends time anywhere else.
“That’s my favorite thing in the world, talking to my parents,” Carmichael says. “I used to see them every day, usually first thing in the morning ... My mom would be like, ‘Did you hear what Trump said?’ and it’d become a full argument.” He wants the show to reflect those kitchen-table conversations—often funny, sometimes angry or upset, with no topic off-limits as long as a character has a strong opinion about it.
Often Jerrod himself will take the more uncomfortable position—in a recent episode about Bill Cosby, his character was the one sticking up for the comedian’s professional legacy, trying to rationalize his enjoyment of Cosby’s comedy while sidestepping the long list of of rape allegations against him. Another episode about a transgender teen saw the family air some less-evolved views while advising Jerrod on how to engage with him. In both cases, the frank lack of political correctness married with the sitcom atmosphere can make the show’s engagement with such issues seem a little flip. That’s part of the gamble of Carmichael’s approach—but it largely succeeds by virtue of how authentic the discussions feel. There are moments that can feel tin-eared, but the candid characterization of the family helps the show justify them.
He insists he’s looking to discuss topics that he or his writers have a clear perspective on. “We have a really great staff: people who have experienced these things before, who know where the lines are, what the rules are,” he says. “It’s like stand-up, I don’t say things to rile people up. We’re trying to make people feel something.”
Along with the Cosby episode, The Carmichael Show has already talked about marital infidelity and the death of a family member this year. Upcoming topics include depression, Islamophobia, and gentrification. It’s all part of the “real conversation” Carmichael constantly refers to—a strenuous effort to avoid any zany sitcom hijinks, even if it means a whole episode takes place in the same living room. “I want to give you something you can agree with and you can disagree with, genuinely disagree with,” he says. “That’s the thing that excites me the most.”
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