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The Carmichael Show revives, challenges, and reenergizes the Very Special Episode

The cast of The Carmichael Show.
The cast of The Carmichael Show.
NBC

Very Special Episodes have been both a staple of television and the bane of its existence. These episodes acknowledge that television can provide insight on and sympathy for a timely and/or emotionally resonant issue. They also can be unbearably cheesy and clumsy, which can do more harm than good.

Even the best intentions can go awry when paired with self-righteous moralizing. And the sad fact is it's just so much easier to get on a high horse than it is to explore a complicated issue in 40 minutes or less. It's far more convenient to acknowledge the topic at hand — be it drugs, racism, sexuality, or gambling — and wrap it up in a neat bow of sudden understanding by the time the credits roll. Many a decent show has been felled by the Very Special Episode's demand of introducing, exploring, and understanding a capital-i Issue in its allotted episode runtime.

But The Carmichael ShowNBC's sitcom that returns for its second season on Wednesday, March 9 — nailed it from the get-go.

The Carmichael Show found success by tackling big issues head-on

The premise of The Carmichael Show is a familiar one in the sitcom world: Man meets woman, woman meets man's family, hilarity ensues. It even plays out to the tune of a live studio audience, a format that NBC has tried to revive for years without significant success.

The Carmichael Show wasn't exactly expected to break the mold. Comedian Jerrod Carmichael and his co-creators (which include Carmichael's Neighbors director, Nicholas Stoller) got only a six-episode order, and the original plan to pair The Carmichael Show with Craig Robinson's Mr. Robinson was then scrapped in favor of burning off Carmichael episodes two at a time. With just six episodes to prove its worth, it would have been understandable if The Carmichael Show had used its limited time to have some sillier fun with its talented cast while it could.

Instead, The Carmichael Show took on several contentious issues all in a row — and was only funnier for it.

Its pilot episode largely stuck to a familiar family sitcom formula. Carmichael plays Jerrod, a version of himself who has just moved in with his girlfriend, Maxine (a game Amber Stevens West). Jerrod doesn't want to tell his opinionated parents (Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier, both great, both long overdue for this kind of comedic vehicle). Hilarity ensues. Still, it's a strong first episode that leans on family sitcom traditions and incorporates race and religion into its punchlines effortlessly.

The second episode, however, lulls the audience into a false sense of security by opening with a fairly routine bit on Jerrod's preferred birthday gifts — and then his brother Bobby (Lil Rel Howery) comes in and tells them an unarmed teenager has been shot by local police.

Carmichael Show's second episode takes on police brutality and Black Lives Matter with humor and heart

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Maxine and Jerrod. (NBC)

The shift is jarring, but Carmichael and co-creator Ari Katcher's very funny script for "Protest" immediately barrels on with the jokes, as if to defy the idea that this awful incident should bring the episode screeching to a halt. Jerrod's brother, for instance, has broken this news in his brand new work uniform — as a security guard. "Wrong day to wear this!" Bobby booms. Tension broken, the audience loses it.

One trap Very Special Episodes often fall into is letting the characters become soft-spoken facsimiles of themselves; the Issue at hand sucks up all the oxygen in the room and takes everyone's personality with it. "Protest" makes sure everyone in the cast is still distinct from one another and staying true to themselves.

Maxine can't wait to get to protesting, prompting Joe (Grier) to ask if she always gets "this giddy when someone gets shot." Cynthia (Devine) decides she would like to protest, only to come back almost immediately because these kids don't know how to do it right. "You don't play music on a laptop at a protest," she sputters. "You sing! Everyone knows that!" Jerrod, meanwhile, is unconvinced that protests solve anything. But when he tries to talk to his father about getting unfairly profiled and handcuffed, Joe shifts the blame onto him for walking too aggressively.

Everyone in the cast is coming from a different place and approaching the issue with a different perspective. The specificity of the characters and jokes is what makes a sitcom sing, and it's especially important when throwing viewers such a serious curveball.

It's surprising to see a sitcom take on police brutality so frankly for a couple of reasons. First, the audience's initial reaction is deep discomfort, which increases the episode's level of difficulty. Second, The Carmichael Show is one of two current network sitcoms with a predominantly black cast (the other being ABC's Black-ish).

There simply aren't many sitcoms out there that could do an episode about police brutality from this perspective, and as Carmichael Show's incredibly deft "Protest" and Black-ish's "Hope" highlights, that's a real shame. As Pilot Viruet wrote about the episode at Flavorwire, it's difficult "to make jokes about racism rather than to make racist jokes, and to mine a laugh from something that hurts ... but it is not impossible, and when done correctly it educates and it entertains."

A Carmichael Show episode called "Gender" features one of the best transgender storylines to ever be on television, period

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Jerrod and Jordan. (NBC)

While the third episode managed to take on sensitive issues like health and mortality, even while innocuously titled "Kale," the fourth episode of Carmichael Show is a stunner. "Gender," written by Mike Scully of Parks and Recreation and The Simpsons, has Jerrod taking part in a youth-mentorship program.

The entire family is thrilled when his kid turns out to be an all-state basketball player, deciding that this inevitably means they'll get to sit courtside at NBA games forever. Jordan (Kylen Davis) throws a wrench in this plan by coming out to Jerrod as gay, which sends Jerrod to his parents' house in a mild panic. When his parents are surprisingly cool with it, Jerrod calms down, and goes back to Jordan all pleased with himself for being so open-minded.

That's when Jordan apologizes for coming out as gay when it's not actually the case. The truth is, Jordan is transgender, and she was gauging Jerrod's reaction to see if she could come out as herself. Both Jerrod and the audience are floored.

From here, "Gender" could have gone the expected route of making Jerrod not understand until he suddenly does. Instead, it sends Jerrod back to his parents' house in a severe panic. The family then has a frank discussion about gender that isn't afraid to be a little less than understanding — because they don't quite understand.

The key is that none of their ignorant statements come from a hateful place; they're all trying to wrap their heads around the idea of what it means to be transgender, and asking honest questions along the way. This lack of cruel intent or active hostility makes the subsequent jokes land.

And there are plenty of jokes! When Cynthia asks if this means Jordan dresses up like a "mini RuPaul," Joe corrects her by saying it's like "Bruce Jenner, who's now Carol-Anne." Maxine interjects to say her name is actually Caitlyn, to which Joe shrugs, "I know, I just don't like that name." Later, Jerrod's brother Bobby asks if it would still be okay to start a fight with Caitlyn Jenner if she were rude to him at a party. They're confused, but nonchalant, and open to learning more.

The best example of how The Carmichael Show keeps joking in character here, though, is when Joe insists that Jordan will make it out okay: "The woman inside him will tell the man what to do." It's as classic a sitcom setup as any joke out there, and the fact that Scully and Grier manage to make it work in the context of a transgender-acceptance plot line is remarkable.

The real reason this storyline shines, though, is that it doesn't end in automatic understanding. Jerrod goes back to Jordan, expressing his concern and confusion. Jordan balks, but Jerrod isn't done:

"The fact that I don't totally get it doesn't mean I don't hear what you're saying, or that I don't believe you. I know that this is real. Truthfully, I don't have to get it 100 percent to support you 100 percent.

And that right there is what makes "Gender" so noteworthy. Jerrod acknowledges that he has more learning to do, but that he wants to do it. Ending an episode in a more ambiguous place is a much more unusual and brave move than wrapping things up pat.

Jordan's part in The Carmichael Show also points to the rapid progress that television's sexuality plot lines have made in recent years — and why GLAAD's decision to shut down its "LGBT representation by the numbers" study was correct. In that study, Jordan's storyline might count as "minor," since it was prompted by a non-regular cast member. But the thoughtful way The Carmichael Show treated Jordan — with respect and honesty — makes it one of the best storylines about a transgender character television has ever had.

Multi-camera sitcoms may not be in vogue now, but they have always taken on bigger issues in between the studio laughter

While more cinematic single-camera sitcoms have become the default for comedies, multi-camera sitcoms have a rich history of handling controversy. All in the Family famously tackled racism on the regular, but also devoted episodes to issues like sexual assault and crises of faith. Family Matters, The Facts of Life, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air all frequently devoted episodes to topics that subdued their studio audiences. Boy Meets World, a staple of ABC's TGIF lineup, often took on more serious topics like domestic abuse and alcoholism, though the discussions rarely lived on past their episodes' ending credits. More recently, the CBS multi-cam sitcom Mom follows two generations of addicts trying to make things better for their families.

Still, the multi-camera sitcom's fall from critical grace has dulled its overall impact. While The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men dominated ratings for years, those sitcoms rarely addressed serious topics in the way their multi-cam ancestors did. The Carmichael Show harks back to those more substantial plot lines while keeping its own voice intact. Tonight's final two episodes, titled "Guns" and "Prayer," look set to keep that streak alive.

In fact, audiences have responded to the series in a way NBC clearly did not see coming. While the network's critically lauded sitcoms like Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock had many weeks when they barely cracked 3 million viewers, the underpromoted Carmichael Show premiered to 4.1 million, and even grew in its second week to 4.77 million. If NBC is looking for a new show it can rebuild its comedy block around — something the network has been trying, and failing, to do pretty much since Friends went off the air — The Carmichael Show is the best contender it's had in years.

The Carmichael Show premieres its second season on NBC at 10 pm on Wednesday, March 9, before moving to its regular timeslot at 9 pm on Sundays. Full episodes are also available on Hulu.