Brow Beat

The Carmichael Show’s Episode About Cosby Is Absolutely Groundbreaking

The Carmichael Show tackles Cosby.

Chris Haston/NBC

Many TV shows have already commented, whether slyly or bluntly, on the Bill Cosby rape allegations. South Park, of course, milked the scandal for sharp comic effect. So have Inside Amy Schumer, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Bojack Horseman. Ditto SNL, and most recently, a Season 3 episode of Broad City, which brought the entire uproar back full circle. “People really shouldn’t trick other people into having sex,” Hannibal Buress’ Lincoln warns. “Whoa. I’ve heard so many women say that, but when you say it, I really hear it,” says Ilana.

And so with Sunday night’s episode of The Carmichael Show, the sitcom created by Jerrod Carmichael that is entering its second season, it would seem that the episode, “Fallen Heroes,” is a bit late to the conversation. It’s been over a year now since Buress’ leaked stand-up bit sparked the ultimate downfall of the now-disgraced comedian, and in addition to all of the TV jibes, the subject has been analyzed and agonized over in every corner of the Internet. And in a way, much of what occurs in the episode doesn’t feel new. But what separates “Fallen Heroes” from these other examples meant for our entertainment is that the conversation is restricted solely to a dialogue between black characters—and in doing so, it unpacks just how difficult it has been to deal with the revelations as a black American.

Jerrod (Jerrod Carmichael) attempts to surprise his girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West) with tickets to a Cosby stand-up performance, and her unsurprising immediate reaction is to balk at the opportunity. Jerrod argues that it’s “kind of his farewell tour,” and the only chance he’ll have to see Cosby alive and, well, for free. “The ironic part is you would have to knock me unconscious to get me to go see Bill Cosby,” Maxine remarks. The banter continues throughout the episode, as the rest of his family—his mom and dad (played by Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier), celebrating their wedding anniversary, his brother Bobby and his off-and-on-again girlfriend Nekeisha—all find themselves debating the merits of boycotting Cosby in solidarity with his victims.

Of course, every character has a different point of view: Jerrod calls out Maxine for listening to Michael Jackson (“Even his victims should listen to him,” he argues, bluntly. And later: “Talent trumps morals.”), while his mom, Cynthia is more confused than anything as to what the right thing to do is. And then there’s Nekeisha, who has somehow remained completely unaware of the allegations until now—which gives the show a clever way to illustrate just how complicated Cosby’s legacy is. (While scrolling through his Wikipedia page, she has to get past all of his many philanthropic and professional accomplishments before finally reaching the disturbing stuff. “I don’t know why that’s not higher on his Wikipedia page,” an exasperated Maxine says.)

Sprinkled throughout are observations and opinions that ring true for many black people who grew up in a world where Cosby was once considered a shining example of racial progress in America: Bobby is more opposed to the comedian on the grounds of his notoriously fogeyish critiques of young black Americans. Jerrod points to the importance of The Cosby Show and how it made them believe that they, too could go to college. And in the final moments of the episode, The Carmichael Show drives home just how indelible the Huxtable family’s adventures remain, with a specific run down of a few key, instantly recognizable episodes.

Other TV shows’ critiques of the allegations, in which all or most of the characters involved are white, have not been so in tune with this aspect of the comedian, and understandably so. When Diane (voiced by Alison Brie), pulls a Hannibal Buress on a book tour with Bojack Horseman—reminding the public that beloved TV father figure “Uncle Hanky” has a string of allegations against him from former assistants—the critique mostly concerns how the public berates women who speak out against powerful men. On Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it’s treated as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it burn (“Am I not a pretty young thing anymore? Am I bear now? Or a daddy? Or … a Huxtable?!” frets Titus Andromedon*).

The Carmichael Show, however, isn’t afraid to bask a bit in the positive memories once associated with Cosby. Some could argue that giving this much time to such nostalgia is biased, selfish, ignorant, or fraught, at best. But that’s one thing that makes the comedy work well, even if it does at times feel like well-trod territory—it gives every possible perspective a chance to be heard, and devotes equal time to them, with equal parts snark, thoughtfulness, and critique. If it sounds a bit like another current sitcom centered around a 21st century black family, then you’re right—it shares some similarities with Black-ish, which also performs weekly dives into topical issues while deconstructing them on multiple levels.

The Carmichael Show hasn’t yet gotten the same acclaim or attention that Black-ish has, in large part because both of its seasons have premiered on NBC in odd, off-season periods (last year, at the end of August, and most recently, in a preview episode this past Wednesday). But aside from the aesthetic choices (The Carmichael Show goes old school, performing in front of a live audience—which admittedly, can make it difficult to get into at first), there’s at least one other major distinction to be made between the two: There’s a good chance we won’t see a Black-ish episode devoted to the Cosby allegations. When it premiered, just weeks before Buress’ video leaked, it was frequently compared to The Cosby Show, and the show’s creator, Kenya Barris, welcomed the comparison. Barris also openly criticized Judd Apatow’s unrelenting barbs at Cosby’s expense (calling them “obsessive”), and in an interview with the New York Times last month, he revealed he is “sad” to see the legendary show “disappear as a cultural artifact.” But maybe it’s okay if Black-ish steers clear of Cosby—with “Fallen Heroes,” Carmichael has encapsulated that sadness perfectly for all of us. 

Correction, March 15, 2016: This post originally misidentified Titus Andromedon, the character on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as Titus Andronicus.