What might be most exceptional about “Fallen Heroes,” the second episode of The Carmichael Show‘s second season, is that for this particular show, it’s not exceptional at all.
Every single one of Carmichael‘s nine installments to date would qualify on any other sitcom as a Very Special Episode, the hallowed subgenre that sees a typically lighthearted series about family, friends, or the workplace — the Holy Trinity of ensemble comedies — take a half an hour for its characters to earnestly discuss a hot-button issue, be it police brutality, religion, or gun control. Except The Carmichael Show breezed through all three of these issues in its very first season, aired on NBC last summer, via the long-form family debates that constitute its M.O.
What truly distinguishes “Fallen Heroes” from episodes like these (or “The Funeral,” another brand-new episode that aired immediately afterward) isn’t its approach, or even its execution. It’s the subject matter, which is both more specific and higher-profile than anything this deceptively young, exceptionally confident show has taken on yet. Talking about personal handguns or preferred gender pronouns in the abstract is one thing. Explicitly naming a man who’s still, somehow, one of the country’s most beloved entertainers is another.
Before it even premiered, “Fallen Heroes” was already known as “the Cosby episode.” In a New York Times Magazine profile run in advance of the second season, creator and star Jerrod Carmichael, a twenty-seven-year-old stand-up comedian from North Carolina, discussed its making with writer Jonah Weiner. Carmichael and his collaborators had sought feedback from the likes of Judd Apatow and Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor and frequent consultant to the show, but were still struggling to nail the episode’s tone in editing: “I try to avoid having ‘a message,’” he said of a moment where his character notes, “Damn shame what [Cosby] did to all those women, though,” before cueing up an episode of…The Cosby Show. “The risk here is that the whole episode is a gray area, and that line’s black.”
That line is still there in the final cut, which aired last night. As with most Carmichael Show episodes, “Fallen Heroes” began with a simple point of disagreement that rapidly spirals into a six-way argument: Jerrod is all set for date night with his live-in girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West) — until Maxine learns that the surprise date is actually an evening at a Bill Cosby show. Jerrod then offers his second ticket to his parents; Cynthia (Loretta Devine) wants to go but knows she shouldn’t, while Joe (David Alan Grier) feels alright with enjoying someone who’s still technically innocent until proven guilty. Eventually, Jerrod goes to the concert alone while Joe creates a moral dilemma of his own: buying Cynthia a stolen coat for their 34th anniversary. She takes it anyway, of course.
In the half hour (in television time, at least) between Jerrod’s tone-deaf date announcement and his return from the show, no one really changes anyone’s mind. Jerrod says he wasn’t able to enjoy the performance, but he still goes; Cynthia knows all the reasons why she shouldn’t enjoy something with a less-than-clean track record, but a nice fur is a nice fur. On The Carmichael Show, though, it’s never the outcome that matters as much as the process.
True to Carmichael’s aims, the family’s points of view are all located somewhere on a spectrum of gray. No one outright denies that Cosby’s a predator or says that anyone who doesn’t believe his accusers is a monster, and the discussion is all the better for it, not to mention funnier.
Maxine, ever the outsider, immediately takes the hardest-line anti-Cosby stance: “The ironic part is you’d have to knock me unconscious” to get her to the concert, she tells Jerrod in one of the night’s surprisingly few good-natured groaners. (Another one, when Cynthia and Joe get into an argument: “Take that Wikipedia page and update it, because now it’s fifty-SIX women that Bill Cosby’s hurt!”) Jerrod, meanwhile, is gleefully apathetic; in a line cribbed directly from his Spike Lee-directed HBO special, he argues that “talent trumps morals,” because “anyone’s capable of doing something violent or disgusting, but the list of people with genuine talent is limited!” So it’s okay for him to still enjoy Bill Cosby — and for Maxine, just a tad hypocritically, to still watch Woody Allen movies.
Other members of the family make less controversial points. Joe stands by the necessity of non-judgement while also pointing out that most of our idols turn out to be disappointments: “The best thing our heroes can do is die before they can disappoint us. If MLK Junior were still alive, he’d probably be doing mattress commercials: ‘I HAD a dream…'” (This was a standout night for David Alan Grier, who also busted out a world-class Cosby impression.) And while looking up the allegations she somehow hadn’t previously heard of, Jerrod’s former sister-in-law Nekeisha (Tiffany Haddish) accidentally sums up what once made Cosby such an icon, including being the first African-American to headline a weekly network show, I Spy, and donating millions of dollars to historically black colleges. Earlier, Jerrod points out the impact of The Cosby Show itself: “It taught us we could all go to college. We didn’t, but we knew we could!”
“Fallen Heroes” wraps up on a slyly perceptive note. As the family opts for Seinfeld in search of a less contentious viewing option — most of them have never seen it, a detail that parallels an upcoming episode of The People v. OJ Simpson in which white jurors ask to watch Seinfeld while black jurors lobby for Martin — Joe asks if anyone from the cast’s done anything to give them pause. Jerrod runs through Jerry and George before hitting on “the dude who played Kramer.” Joe’s closing line: “He called us what?!” Cosby may be the most monstrous of our disgraced celebrities, but he’s hardly the only one. Once we start seeing our entertainers’ flaws, they become too distracting for the work to serve as a distraction.
The Carmichael Show hits on all sorts of issues with an ease that belies just how easily this episode could be either a tonally disjointed sermon or callously light-hearted. Can we, and should we, separate someone’s accomplishments from their failings? What’s the line between an unforgivable lapse and something we just accept as a fact? “Fallen Heroes” offers answers that are refreshing in their variety, mirroring a recent episode of Black-ish, another Norman Lear-influenced family sitcom, that tackled police brutality. Endorsing one option feels less important than presenting them all without judgement — especially when said lack of judgement doesn’t undermine the jokes. It reinforces them.