It’s practically impossible to have a conversation about The Carmichael Show without mentioning Black-ish. My instinct is not to draw the comparison, since a good ol’ fashioned multi-camera sitcom in the tradition of Norman Lear doesn’t have much in common with a sitcom in ABC’s single-camera house style, at least stylistically. But they’re both contemporary scripted stories about what it means to be black, which are woefully few and far-between, especially on television. A show like that is dangerous, even to some of the people with whom it would most resonate, so like Black-ish before it, Carmichael has generally front-loaded its most agreeable material to win the audience’s investment rather than toss viewers into the deep end.
The most prematurely talked-about episode of Carmichael’s pleasantly surprising second season is this Sunday’s “Fallen Heroes,” which unpacks the fallout of the many, many, many rape allegations against Bill Cosby. That’s such an exciting episode because it’s a potentially disastrous subject to discuss on a sitcom, especially one that models itself after socially-minded family sitcoms where horrific viewpoints are humanized by people who we love despite the dumb shit they say, just like our actual relatives. NBC wouldn’t have granted the little-watched, oft-discussed Carmichael a second season if they didn’t dig the show, but the episode people have been talking about most is not the one that got the courtesy of a special preview leading out of The Voice. For those who haven’t heard about Carmichael before, the Cosby debate might have been too hostile an introduction to the show’s talky, issues-focused world.
“Everybody Cheats” is a far better episode to introduce season two, much as the mostly conventional, not terribly controversial pilot was a harmless, pleasant introduction to the first season. Carmichael won’t hit fifth gear into the Cosby episode. Don’t get it twisted: what Carmichael is doing is revolutionary by any measure, between its adherence to a bygone style and its willingness to rely on nothing more than the exchange of sincerely held beliefs. But we have to know the Carmichaels before we can love them despite their foibles, so while “Everybody Cheats” is unlikely to be the strongest episode of season two, it’s a nice reintroduction to what the show does best.
The episode’s setup is as thin as thin can be: Cynthia and Maxine arrive home after the former spots the husband of Cynthia’s friend Karen out with another woman. Cynthia is horrified that her friend’s husband is cheating, but she has no interest in getting involved in the matter. She didn’t intervene at the time, and has no interest in jumping into the fray now. Joe is proud to have a wife who doesn’t snitch, but Maxine thinks Cynthia should let Karen know. After Maxine’s “sisters before misters” pep talk, Cynthia caves in and calls Karen, in a phone call amazing enough to be transcribed it its entirety:
Listen, I don’t know how to put this delicately, but um…your husband is a lying ho and he’s sleeping with another woman … What? Well why would I make that up? … Jealous?! Why would I be jealous of you? Both of your sons are drug addicts. … Oh, I didn’t know that. I’m so sorry. Well listen honey, that’s why they call it a battle. Sometimes you win some, sometimes you lose some. … Well fine, Miss Thang, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Man, how hilarious is Loretta Devine? When she calls Maxine a “schaden-fraud”—(a botched assist from the “Word Of The Day” app she’s been using—I literally choked on a bite of club sandwich. Because Carmichael plops its characters in a room and simply lets them debate (in front of a live studio audience, no less), the show lives and dies on the strength of its performances. So it’s a good thing the performances are uniformly great. (Amber Stevens West can be slightly wooden at times, but it’s not egregious.) Devine and David Alan Grier are the multi-camera married couple I never knew I needed. And “Everybody Cheats” shows why they’re not just funny, they’re ‘shippable. They know each other down to the tiniest molecules and they love each other anyway. The conversation in the tag about how they would go about cheating is a perfect example of their unconditional acceptance of each other.
These are the people who raised Jerrod, so it’s no wonder he doesn’t totally panic when Maxine confesses that when their relationship began, she was still in a relationship with some poor, Patagonia-wearing dude named Garrett. He doesn’t storm out and go spout his woes to a wise-cracking bartender until Maxine catches up and apologizes to him. They excuse themselves to the kitchen, one of two rooms the entire episode takes place in, and reason through the conflict like adults. Carmichael is so refreshing because it’s a subtle reinvention of the family multi-camera by steering it away from insult comedy. Sure, Maxine is Cynthia’s pin cushion, but the Carmichaels’ zingers don’t burn each other as frequently as is expected of this kind of sitcom.
As in the first season, there are still points at which Carmichael is an almost too-perfect platform for a stand-up comedian. Carmichael’s delivery and writing (he penned this one alongside Ari Katcher) frequently sounds like stand-up in a way that almost takes me out of the story. But if that’s my only nitpick, Carmichael is off to a great start, and it can only go up from here.
- Joe: “Any man who gives his wife a car with a big bow on it is probably cheating. Those Lexus Christmas commercials are darker than you think.”
- Joe, on JFK’s lovelife: “Well, in fairness, he was assassinated before we could figure out which direction he was going.”
- Cynthia, briefly summarizing her character: “I’m very opinionated, and my experiences are limited.”
- Bobby’s reaction when Cynthia talks about Karen’s sons is classic.
- I hope Joe’s obsession with making charts is a frequent callback.
- I need some Nekeisha in the Cosby episode.