When Jerrod — the protagonist of NBC's incredibly sharp sitcom The Carmichael Show — tries to treat his girlfriend Maxine with a spontaneous date, she's laughing and game — until he reveals that the surprise is tickets to a Bill Cosby show. Maxine's response is immediate and firm: "No."
On another show, that juxtaposition might have been the entire punchline. But on The Carmichael Show's March 13 episode, "Fallen Heroes," the exchange was the spark for a much deeper, more fascinating conversation. And in the end, the episode isn't just about Bill Cosby but about how excruciating it can be to look at your heroes when their personal lives get messy — or in Cosby's case, downright grotesque.
NBC's young sitcom — which came back for its second season on March 9 — often unfolds more like a stage play than an episode of television. It's filmed in front of a live studio audience, and is set almost entirely in the living room of Jerrod's parents (played by Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier). Instead of using traditional A/B storylines, the show focuses on its central family members debating with each other about whatever issue's come up that week.
This willingness to dive into the muck of disagreements is what makes The Carmichael Show not just noteworthy, but compassionate. People within the Carmichael family might not — and usually don't — agree with each other, but they'll at least hear each other out, and try to understand where each person is coming from.
The Carmichael Show is the perfect series to dive into the Bill Cosby Issue
That's why I was so excited when I heard that The Carmichael Show was set to tackle the question of Bill Cosby's legacy with "Fallen Heroes," co-written by creator Jerrod Carmichael and Mike Scully (The Simpsons).
There are few series that would touch this subject at all beyond a couple sly jokes, and even fewer that would devote an entire episode to parsing what Cosby's long, long list of alleged sex crimes means for fans of his comedy. Carmichael often cites All in the Family creator Norman Lear as an influence; in episodes like "Fallen Heroes," it's easy to understand why that admiration is now mutual.
As Jerrod (Carmichael) and Maxine (Amber Stevens West) argue about Cosby, Maxine declares that she would never support Cosby after what he's "allegedly" done. "The ironic thing," she says when Jerrod presents her with the tickets, "is that you'd have to knock me unconscious to see Bill Cosby."
Jerrod then calls out Maxine for going to see Blue Jasmine "at the height of the Woody Allen scandal," or when Allen's stepdaughter Dylan Farrow published a New York Times op-ed about the filmmaker allegedly abusing her as a child. Maxine responds that she'll never see a Woody Allen film again if he won't go to the Cosby show, but Jerrod pushes back, as a huge fan who just wants to keep the comedian's art separate from his personal life.
"I'm not judging you for seeing [Allen's] movies," Jerrod says. "He's a great artist. I'm just saying you need to separate people's personal life from their work. I mean, everybody's capable of doing something violent or disgusting, but the list of people with genuine talent is limited. So talent trumps morals."
Jerrod's parents land somewhere in between Jerrod and Maxine. His father Joe (Grier) acknowledges that the allegations against Cosby are awful, but says that not giving Cosby the benefit of the doubt as far as "innocent until proven guilty" goes is a slippery slope.
Meanwhile, Jerrod's mother (Devine) is horribly conflicted, going back and forth between her visceral horror at the allegations and her fond memories of The Cosby Show and the comedian's other work. "Fifty-five women ... that's a high number," Cynthia frets. "I shouldn't go ... right?"
Finally, Jerrod's brother Bobby (Lil Rel Howrey) says he never liked Cosby all that much ("Bill Cosby is always so critical of us young people, always talking about the way we wear our pants"), and his ex-wife Nekeisha (the very funny Tiffany Haddish) hadn't even heard about the controversy — but once she goes through his Wikipedia page, she's totally cool writing Cosby off for good.
Tellingly, though, just about the only perspective not represented in some way is one that maintains Cosby's total innocence.
The ensuing conversation is sprawling and contentious, with every family member bringing something different to the table. The gravity of the accusations against Cosby gets weighed against his legacy as a comedian, and especially as a prominent black entertainer.
It's significant that this discussion is taking place on a multi-camera NBC sitcom — the exact format and network that made The Cosby Show famous and its titular star beloved.
But in a show full of canny decisions, one of the smartest was not calling this episode "Bill Cosby" but, instead, "Fallen Heroes." After all, at the end of the day, the Carmichaels' conflict isn't just about Cosby; it's about what it means to grapple with a hero — whether artist, athlete, politician, or any other — whose personal life becomes contentious. Do you write them off for good, like Maxine? Or do you try to separate the personal from the product and appreciate the art for what it is, like Jerrod?
"Fallen Heroes" doesn't feel the need to wrap up everything neatly. By the time the credits roll, no one but Nekeisha has been irrevocably swayed in any one direction. To its credit, The Carmichael Show realizes that the issue is far too big, layered, and complicated to fully resolve in under 22 minutes.
In an increasingly polarized world, it can be tempting to dilute an issue down to a single perspective. "Fallen Heroes" refuses to do that.
Getting stuck in an echo chamber where everyone shares your opinions is easier than ever right now. Social media gives people a platform to express and work through their feelings; it can amplify messages in a way that doesn't require official media channels. It can be an exciting way of finding people who share your values.
But conversations are often taken to their most logical extreme at the click of a button. Controversy crops up, think pieces fly back and forth, and very often we're all preaching our perspectives to a choir that already believes in the message. The conversation becomes the snake eating its own tail — an endless circle of affirmation.
The Carmichael Show has no interest in playing to any one side of an argument. It doesn't make characters take on perspectives they wouldn't have in real life, nor does it shy away when characters we're supposed to like say controversial things, as when Joe wonders how we can believe the women accusing Cosby of rape when they were unconscious at the time.
In fact, every episode of The Carmichael Show so far has taken on contentious issues — prayer, protests, gender, and more — from several different angles.
The reason for this is simple: The Carmichael Show doesn't believe the world is so simple that you can boil anything down to one single point. Every person is a messy tangle of contradictions, and The Carmichael Show isn't scared of diving into them.
Instead, it embraces its characters' conflicting perspectives as an opportunity to tell a more interesting story about how we argue about the things that spark passionate responses in us — and is so much richer for it.
The Carmichael Show airs Sundays at 9 pm EST on NBC. Previous episodes are currently available to watch on Hulu.