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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Small Screen: Why You Should Be Watching The Carmichael Show

Influenced by Norman Lear and Unafraid to Tackle Bill Cosby, Jerrod Carmichael is Creating Must-See-TV

By Chris Sabga

In the 1970s, screenwriting and producing legend Norman Lear ruled the small screen – television – with groundbreaking programming that explored politics, religion, and life from all angles. Whether it was Archie and Meathead going back-and-forth about hot topics on "All in the Family" or a middle-aged woman having an abortion on "Maude," Lear's shows captured the gritty reality of America the way few others ever had – or ever have since. 

However, instead of creating a trend that lasted through the '80s and beyond, Lear's blunt but nuanced vision of the world disappeared in favor of more wholesome and "family-friendly" shows like "The Cosby Show" (which I will get back to shortly), "Full House" and everything on ABC's "TGIF" block. While I certainly grew up loving those as well, there was nothing that could compare to Archie Bunker or "The Jeffersons."

In 2016, I read an article about a show I'd barely heard of, NBC's "The Carmichael Show," tackling a show we've all seen, "The Cosby Show." Everyone knows the shocking and sordid story of Cosby's downfall by now: Comedian Hannibal Buress made a "joke" about Cosby's holier-than-thou attitude toward the young African-American community, with the "punchline" being that Cosby is a rapist.

"Pull your pants up black people! I was on TV in the '80s," Buress mocked, imitating Cosby. "Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches."

From there, endless numbers of women came forward stating they'd been drugged and raped by the '80s sitcom "role model." Cosby went from being lauded a hero who could do no wrong – his sterling influence tenuously linked by "The New York Times" to the rise of America's first black President, Barack Obama – to an internationally reviled pariah who made the whole world feel disgusted and ashamed for ever liking him in the first place.

"The Carmichael Show" was going to go there. The Season 2 episode – titled "Fallen Heroes" – covered Bill Cosby from every angle, including the uncomfortable ones. In one conversation, the characters debated the guilt they felt for being fans of "The Cosby Show" back in the '80s and the unspoken lament that his actions had tainted their childhood memories. How do you reconcile the same man who brought such joy to so many people with the information we have now? Is it okay, the Carmichaels questioned, to still be entertained by a brilliant comedian who is so repulsive in his personal life? Every member of the family had their own wildly differing – and sometimes taboo – take on Bill Cosby and "The Cosby Show."

Norman Lear would have been proud. (Actually, he is!) The Cosby episode – and "The Carmichael Show" in general – is exactly the kind of television Lear would have been writing and producing in the 1970s. It stars comedian and actor Jerrod Carmichael – playing a character of the same name – with an incredible cast portraying his family: Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier as his parents, Amber Stevens West as his biracial girlfriend (a topic that comes up more than once during the course of the show), and LilRel Howery and Tiffany Haddish as his brother and ex-sister-in-law.

After reading about the Cosby episode, I knew I had to catch up and binge-watch "The Carmichael Show" from the beginning! "Fallen Heroes" is but one of the many thought-provoking topics "Carmichael" covers. In the first two seasons, the show has memorably debated gentrification ("Gentrifying Bobby"), depression ("The Blues"), gay and transgender issues ("Gender"), and various other trending topics.

Two of the most memorable episodes, for me, both took place in the second season:

In "The Funeral," the stoic but sometimes blustery patriarch of the Carmichael clan, Joe Carmichael, is tasked with planning his father's funeral. Joe's breakdown at the end and admission that his dad had abused him is powerful, heartbreaking, and absolutely gut-wrenching. It's one of the finest moments of David Alan Grier's long and distinguished acting career. (Bonus: Look for "Jeffersons" alum Marla Gibbs as Joe's mom.)

When "President Trump" aired, its episode title was both a jarring shock to the system and apparently ironic – portending an event that seemingly had no chance in hell of ever happening. At the time, Trump was just another candidate – albeit one who was steadfastly gaining momentum. Yet, here we are today: the episode "President Trump" and President Trump himself are now a reality.

Even though Jerrod Carmichael is the star of the show, he isn't afraid to take the unpopular position. Whether it's supporting controversial gentrification neighborhood overhauls or offensively trolling on social media, Carmichael's character is okay looking like "the bad guy." But he remains endearing – just as Archie Bunker always did, despite his blatant bigotry – because the show always sprinkles its tough issues with layers of warmth and tenderness.

No matter how heated the arguments get, "The Carmichael Show's" family dynamic is its biggest strength. The Carmichaels are real and relatable. They have a deep mutual love and respect for each other. That's why I love them back, even when they're making me mad!

The Carmichael Show airs on NBC. You can watch the first two seasons on Netflix.

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