One of the absolute best under-the-radar shows of recent years is sitcom The Carmichael Show. At first glance, the show is a loud and very traditional studio-based family sitcom. But stick with it for a few minutes and you’ll suddenly discover one of the sharpest, most insightful TV shows.
Each week, The Carmichael Show uses the traditional sitcom format to explore hot-button issues that polite society is too timid to discuss. There’s certainly a lot of subject matter that you have NEVER seen explored on a TV show like this before.
The star of the show is stand-up comedian Jerrod Carmichael and he’s surrounded by an incredible cast that includes: comedy superstar Tiffany Haddish, the break-out star of Get Out Lil Rel Howery, comedy legend David Alan Grier, 22 Jump Street break-out star Amber Stevens West, and Broadway star and Emmy winner Loretta Devine. With purposely over-the-top stage performances, this is a cast that are using their comedic strengths to debate some of the most socially awkward topics of the modern era.
Some viewers may be put off by the OTT performances, but it is exactly these that give the show its power. The Carmichael Show may look like a very traditional sitcom, but there is nothing traditional about it.
These are just some of the questions the show dares to ask:
Should you own a gun?
Maxine, the overly liberal voice of the show, is outraged to find out her boyfriend Jerrod owns a gun. He keeps it in his sock drawer and never disclosed that there’s a gun in the house.
“I brought a gun into my apartment and then you moved in. So, technically you moved in with us,” Jerrod rationalises.
We find out that the gun was given to Jerrod by his father, Joe, on his 18th birthday. Joe reveals that he also gave a gun to Bobby, Jerrod’s brother, on his 18th. When Joe reveals he also has his own gun, his wife Cynthia is appalled. Like Maxine, she didn’t know it was in the house either.
What follows is an ideological stand-off. Each of the characters has their own level of comfort with the idea. Jerrod and his dad both see owning a gun as a tool to give them greater power.
“When they come, they’ll have guns,” explains Joe. Jerrod is pragmatic: “It’s better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it.”
Maxine’s viewpoint that “even a responsible gun owner can still make mistakes” is the message that resonates in this half-hour debate. Because the show is a comedy, the episode ends with at least one family member getting shot (non-fatally – they’ll be back for the next episode). And because it is a sitcom, a lesson is learned. A very painful lesson.
Is it wrong to see Bill Cosby performing stand-up comedy?
The episode was produced before Cosby was jailed, but it’s an idea still worth exploring as more revelations come out about those we once held up as heroes. Bill Cosby wasn’t the first person with power to abuse it and he certainly won’t be the last.
Cosby occupies an interesting cultural space. As revealed in recent years, he performed heinous acts against his victims. But, he was also an important figure in lifting the profile of African American performers on TV. The Cosby Show spent years as the biggest show on US television, but prior to that he was the first African American lead on a TV show (I Spy) and was one of the most beloved stage performers with his stand-up comedy.
So, when the opportunity comes up to see Bill Cosby performing on stage, it presents several ethical dilemmas. There’s the obvious issue of (what were then) accusations levelled against Cosby – absolutely reason enough not to want to support his act. Maxine points out the irony that you’d have to knock her unconscious for her to go and see him, while Cynthia struggles with the large number of Cosby’s victims.
But the show also takes other viewpoints. Bobby isn’t comfortable supporting such a flawed person who has spent so much of his career criticising the youth for not living up to his standards. Meanwhile Joe is open to supporting Cosby only because he (again, at the time the episode originally screened) hadn’t been convicted of a crime.
For Jerrod, he can’t get past the fact that The Cosby Show meant so much to him growing up. He also recognises the hypocrisy in the world – should he have to give up his connection to Cosby in a world where people are still listening to Michael Jackson albums and seeing Woody Allen films?
Before having sex is verbal consent always necessary?
Upon finding out that one of Maxine’s former co-workers was recently raped, it spurs a conversation within the family about rape and consent. Maxine explains that verbal consent should be given at every step of the way, but her view isn’t shared by everyone.
Due to the extremity of the subject matter, this is The Carmichael Show at its most brazen. The episode explores inter-generational views on what is defined as consent and even how that relates to definitions of rape. As Maxine points out, as a society we don’t take the issue seriously enough.
Where the episode is most effective is when it stops being a theoretical conversation and instead becomes very personal for Bobby. He’d had sex with a woman the night before and had believed it was completely consensual. Hearing Maxine talk about the need for verbal consent, Bobby is left to wonder whether he had crossed the line: “I would never intentionally hurt a woman. And I always know that no means no. But I’ve never thought of consent the way you talk about it.”
It’s not a conversation seen often in a multi-camera sitcom.
How are you supposed to behave after being involved in a mass shooting?
Coming home from the mall one day, Jerrod casually mentions that he witnessed a mass shooting incident. He tells his girlfriend that it isn’t a big deal: “This is the society that we live in.” But Maxine and the rest of Jerrod’s family is understandably concerned.
“I know it sounds scary. But I’m fine. I’m safe,” Jerrod insists. But he isn’t fine. As we learn through the episode, Jerrod experienced greater trauma than he initially revealed.
Every episode of The Carmichael Show deals with hot-button issues, but this is the most resonant episode of the entire series with one of the main characters so heavily impacted by direct violence.
The episode tackles the idea that Jerrod doesn’t deal with the incident in the way that one would expect, but it’s also about Jerrod coming to terms with what happened to him and coming to terms with how open he is willing to be with himself about it.
Series creator and star Jerrod Carmichael spoke out when US network NBC opted not to air this episode initially as its scheduled air date coincided with a real-world mass shooting incident.
“I thought that [the] episode would have an opportunity to talk about these tragedies in a meaningful way, to really lend itself to conversation,” Carmichael said. “A lot of times when things like this happen and someone wants to talk about it in an outlet that’s not the news, people will say, ‘Too soon’. But when is it not too soon? Unfortunately, these things happen constantly, and it’s a thing that breaks all of our hearts.”
Should having a threesome change a relationship?
In this show’s opening, we see Maxine and Jerrod out with a woman they met in a bar. It’s an unusual setting for the show, to have them out socialising like regular people. What follows is something that is unusual in the life of the couple: they realise the woman wants to have a threesome with them. And they’re into it.
The rest of the episode is about the consequences of that night. For Maxine and Jerrod, it was an exciting night that has potentially brought them closer.
When Jerrod’s family finds out, that’s when the judgement begins. Cynthia gets upset at Maxine, believing she is now a lesbian. Meanwhile Joe expresses pride at his son, along with great disappointment at Maxine. It’s an extreme double standard that has Maxine feeling degraded.
At its core, the episode explores the idea that the strength of a relationship comes from those in the relationship. The judgement of others about what takes place within the relationship is just noise.
The Carmichael Show airs on SBS VICELAND Saturdays with four episodes airing from 4:55pm. All 3 seasons are available to watch now at SBS On Demand.