Brow Beat

The Carmichael Show Reinvented the Sitcom by Going Back to Its Roots

The Carmichael Show brough new depth to a classic form, but its first priority was to make people laugh.

NBC

The Carmichael Show has been canceled by NBC—or maybe Jerrod Carmichael quit. Either way, it’s not much of a surprise, but it is an enormous loss. Although praised by critics, the show averaged only around 4 million viewers per week, and, throughout its run, NBC didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Despite the growing name recognition of its stars—Carmichael, who has a supporting role in Transfomers: The Last Knight and released an acclaimed stand-up special in May, is quickly becoming a household name, and Lil Rel Howery is gaining momentum after his role in Get Out—the series was still pushed into airing over the summer and only received an initial eight-episode order, which Carmichael called “disrespectful.” (The order was eventually upped to 13; new episodes are schedule to air through August 9.)

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From its old-fashioned title on down, The Carmichael Show looks like a relic of an earlier era: a classic multicam sitcom that could have fit comfortably into the prime-time schedule any time in the last 50 years. But the conversations that Jerrod, played by Carmichael, and his extended family had aren’t the kind you would have heard on Friends or even All in the Family. Over the course of its two-and-a-half seasons, The Carmichael Show has taken on the Black Lives Matter movement, gender transition, the Bill Cosby scandal, rape and consent, and much more, without losing sight of the sitcom ideal that its first priority was to make people laugh.

In its third and now-final season, The Carmichael Show has been as confident as anything on television. The jokes are tighter, land more frequently, and are more democratically distributed among its supremely talented ensemble, which includes Amber Stevens West as Jerrod’s girlfriend (and eventual fiancée), Lil Rel Howery as his brother, and Loretta Divine and David Alan Grier as his parents. It’s the best version of a multicam sitcom that we could have asked for in 2017, and it is living proof that the multicam format still has a place in the TV ecosystem and can be a space for creativity and innovation.

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“What’s most remarkable about this series is that it never feels like a fetishized nostalgia act,” wrote Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “It faithfully replicates old-fashioned sitcom conventions and nudges them one step forward, toward theater.” That nudging is clear in the show’s third season, which operates both with reverence to the multicam format and in subversion of it. That’s true even of The Carmichael Show’s opening credits, where Jerrod seamlessly strolls from one of the show’s sets to another, as the rest of the cast acts out their usual parts. It pushes right up against the fourth wall but keeps it intact.

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Going beyond Seinfeld’s famous “No hugging, no learning” credo, The Carmichael Show is unconcerned even with telling a conventional story. More than 20 episodes in, we still don’t know what Carmichael’s character does for a living. There are few episodes where the show’s main ensemble interacts with other characters for an extended period of time. Almost every episode is devoid of a B-story. Character developments like Jerrod proposing to his live-in girlfriend are brushed aside in favor of a contentious family discussion about Donald Trump. No episode ends with any kind of clear conclusion, and emotional moments that, on any other show, would call for a moment of silence among its ensemble are always covered up with a joke.

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The Carmichael Show doesn’t ask viewers to invest in its characters and what will or won’t happen to them but rather in the conversations they have. The show’s recent mass-shooting episode—whose airing was delayed after the attack on a congressional baseball practice—ends with Jerrod revealing that he narrowly escaped being fatally shot and then spiraling into a monologue about the futility of life, only for his parents to abruptly shuffle out of the apartment because the moment is too heavy: “It got dark in here quick!”

The Carmichael Show brushes aside sitcom storytelling conventions in favor of staging a debate, with its characters serving as amalgamations of different types of people who see the world in vastly different ways. This separates the show from other contemporary socially conscious multicams like CBS’ Mom and Netflix’s One Day at a Time. Those shows host discussions on sensitive social topics, but they aren’t above inserting their characters into traditional “sitcommy” situations to get to that discussion. Episodes of Mom have plots like Christy (Anna Faris) going on a first date with a quirkily absurd good-looking man, and One Day at a Time will have physical gags like Rita Moreno’s abeula trying to apply makeup to her teenaged granddaughter’s face in the middle of the night. These are good sitcom moments, but we’ve seen them before. Mom and One Day at a Time perfect what the multicam comedy has been. The Carmichael Show showed us what it could be.

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For decades, comedians have tried to push the multi-cam format forward. In the ’50s, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show played up the theatricality of the format, with Burns sometimes stopping the show to directly address their studio audience. Garry Shandling took it to new heights with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, where all of the show’s characters are in on the fact that they’re part of a TV show. Louis C.K.’s first TV effort, Lucky Louie, tried to give audiences a more “honest” multicam, where characters openly cursed and every audience reaction was kept in, even if a joke brought complete silence or some moans. More recently, the critically reviled Mulaney tried to add darker comedy to the network sitcom, as well as a small dose of self-awareness, by opening the show with a stand-up monologue performed by the actual John Mulaney with the show’s dimmed sets behind him, only to have the rest of the episode ignore the audience’s presence entirely.

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The Carmichael Show learned from these examples and incorporated the best parts of them. It bit off the theatricality of the Burns and Allen Show, the format-bending attitude of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, the raw honesty of Lucky Louie, and winking self-awareness of Mulaney. Together, these elements make 21 minutes of television that burrows down to the multicam format’s bare bones and creates the freshest version of a multicam that we could hope for in 2017. It’s a delicate balancing act that the show pulls off every week. It’s compelling, daring, and creative television—adjectives that are, these days, usually reserved for single-cams.

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We marvel, and rightfully so, at the ingenuity of single-cam comedies like Atlanta, Master of None, and Insecure, but audiences have begun to develop the idea that this is the only way forward, that any good multicam show will inherently feel like a throwback. (That’s notwithstanding that the most popular comedies on TV, like The Big Bang Theory, are almost always multicams.) The Carmichael Show shows us that there is a way forward for the multicam and that there is still more territory for the classic TV form to explore.

Correction, July 5: This article originally stated that The Carmichael Show’s final season only consisted of eight episodes. It consists of 13.

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