‘The Carmichael Show’ Is a Family-Friendly ’90s Sitcom Throwback With a Stealthy Political Edge

At first glance, The Carmichael Show is a throwback to old family sitcoms. Originally, it was going to share a sharper edge with titular star Jerrod Carmichael’s stand-up, but after retooling from NBC (the show was in development for about two years), Carmichael became more of the family-friendly vehicle the network wanted. Despite this, it still successfully navigates tough — and racially specific — topics without losing its bite.

The family-friendly approach is immediately apparent in the basic setup and premise of the pilot episode: Jerrod has just moved in with his girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West), but is scared to tell his noisy, meddling, slightly off-center parents, Joe (David Alan Grier!) and Cynthia (Loretta Devine!). His decision to hide their cohabitation is endorsed by Jerrod’s eccentric, slacker brother Bobby (LilRel Howery) and the ex-wife he still lives with Nekeisha (Tiffany Haddish) — they keep their divorce a secret from his parents, too.

Carmichael is such a family comedy, with the parents interfering in their children’s personal lives, lots of good-natured bickering, 20-minute-long disagreements that are solved during the last two minutes, funny over-intimacy, frustrated children, and an outsider-ish girlfriend who tries her best to win everyone over. But it’s also a stealthy comedy, one that harkens back to a traditional format while smartly including modern, important plots such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

The second episode, “Protest,” is when things get really interesting. It presents a basic, simplistic sitcom plot: It’s Jerrod’s birthday, but his plans are thwarted when his girlfriend and mother aren’t around to celebrate it. The big difference between The Carmichael Show and your average sitcom is also the reason why they’re ditching Jerrod’s birthday: an unarmed black man was murdered by police, and they are heading out to protest.

There are so many layers to the episode: Maxine wants to protest, Cynthia does too but laments that the protest seems more like a street fair than the hardcore protests she participated in as a child, Joe takes the anti-protestor position, and Jerrod just doesn’t entirely see how protesting will do anything. But there’s also a smart, poignant moment that is almost rushed through (in a good way), about Jerrod’s experience with police officers’ racism. It’s a jarring, great, and necessary thing on television: a woman in a Black Lives Matter shirt, the gallows humor of dealing with another black death, candid talk about the pros and cons of protesting (and candid talk about race in general) — all with a laugh track breaking in every now and then. It’s surreal; it’s amazing.

Not all of the episodes are this good — NBC only sent three out of six for review, but I’m eager to watch the rest — although the other two I viewed are both solid. The family dynamics are a great homage to black family comedies of the mid-’90s — I can easily see Carmichael fitting in with my old favorites like Sister, SisterMoesha, and The Chris Rock Show. At times, there are even shades of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Carmichael and co-creator/co-write Nicholas Stoller are seemingly huge sitcom fans, and it shows in a way that proves they’re knowledgeable of the genre and its limitations. This is a sitcom that knows basic beats and familiar plots, but always manages to sneak in some important theme or some wonderfully specific detail of black or working-class culture. In the pilot episode, Jerrod avoids an awkward conversation by getting everyone stuck in a debate about Obama; in the third episode, Jerrod explains that the reason why his father doesn’t eat healthy is because no one teaches poor people how to eat — a statement that rings true.

The Carmichael Show is, unfortunately, getting the burn-off treatment: six episodes will air in two-episode chunks during three Wednesdays on NBC. (The show will take over the slot formerly occupied by Mr. Robinson — which did find some measure of unexpected ratings success amid the dead days of August.) But it’s a series that will hopefully resonate with viewers enough to get a second, full season that NBC will release with more confidence. The Carmichael Show deserves it.