Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for May 22 through May 28, 2016, is "Porn Addiction" the 12th episode of the second season of NBC's The Carmichael Show.
Buried in the heart of a massive soundstage on the 20th Century Fox lot, the cast of The Carmichael Show feels a little hidden from the world.
That's to be expected, mostly. They're here for a run-through of the episode they will film twice before a live studio audience the next day, so the only people here are crew members, writers, and a handful of journalists. The script was changed heavily just last night, to incorporate a new subplot, and they're getting their bearings with the new story.
But that hidden feeling is also just a little bit appropriate. Carmichael slipped onto NBC's summer schedule in 2015 without much advance notice. Despite that, it garnered critical acclaim and what proved to be surprisingly strong ratings for late August (one of TV's deepest doldrums).
When the show returned in the spring of 2016, it received slightly more promotion, but NBC also stuck it in an unforgiving Sunday night time slot, where it held its own but didn't exactly light the world on fire. When the network was making its renewals for the 2016-'17 season, it was the very last series NBC picked up. (Its third season should air sometime in 2017.)
So the series is used to being hidden away. But that's what gives it so much of its surprise power. It doesn't seem like it's going to be as good as it is when you stumble upon it at 9 pm on a Sunday, or on Hulu.
Put simply, The Carmichael Show has made just 19 episodes, and it has a claim to being the most unique and impressive new broadcast network comedy in ages. And to get to that point, it traveled into TV's past.
The Carmichael Show is old-fashioned, but in a way that feels innovative
If the "live studio audience" mention above didn't tip you off, Carmichael is a very old-fashioned show, as old-fashioned as television itself. Jokes are followed by the laughs of the audience, which is filled with real people but might as well be filled with automatic laughter machines, for all the cachet this sort of TV show has nowadays.
What's more, The Carmichael Show's plots revolve around politics and social issues of the day, something fewer and fewer sitcoms do. The reasoning goes that people don't want politics to infect their relaxing TV series, and even if they did, the mere mention of the name "Barack Obama" might cause the show to seem hideously dated to potential viewers in 2036.
And yet Carmichael is happy to be a throwback show, to the degree that it films two separate tapings of each episode, for two separate audiences, one at 4 pm and one at 7. This practice used to be at least somewhat popular but hasn't been tried in years, if not decades. (As near as I can tell, no show has tried it since the 1980s.) For its troubles, the series has earned the seal of approval from none other than Norman Lear, creator of All in the Family and Maude and many other politically oriented sitcoms.
For their part, the show's creative personnel think it's worth engaging with the topics of the present.
"I think you have to get specific for it to feel real. I'm living in a world where [Beyoncé's] Lemonade just came out. How come we're not talking about it [on TV shows]?" Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, the series' showrunner, tells me.
It's that sense of an ongoing conversation about the topics of the day among the show's characters, and between the show and its audience, that comes up again and again when I talk about the show with those who work on it.
Indeed, that's one of the primary reasons the series co-creator and star, standup comedian Jerrod Carmichael, wanted the audience there in the first place.
"Our show is a conversation all around, among the characters, and in between the audience and the cast," Carmichael tells me. "There's a back and forth. There has to be a rapport there, and it creates that rapport."
"We don't always try to make you laugh," says Amber Stevens West, who plays Maxine, Jerrod's girlfriend on the show. "Jerrod just wants you to feel something. Even if we get groans or a little bit of a sneer, we like that also, because we know you're feeling something, you're having some sort of emotional reaction to it."
Carmichael episodes tell just one story, in a microcosm
Both the episode I'm seeing filmed (a season finale centered on the primary elections, which airs tonight and which I wouldn't dare spoil) and "Porn Addiction" offer a great example of how Carmichael feels innovative, in spite of working within one of the oldest TV forms imaginable.
Stories rarely leave the living room of Joe and Cynthia Carmichael, Jerrod's parents, who are played by veteran actors David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine. When they do, it's to follow, in real time, more or less, how the characters react to the arguments that sprang up in that living room. The series, like Lear's shows, is centered on the idea that the things Americans argue about around their dinner tables are already the stuff of riveting drama and don't need any more adornment.
"How many times have you argued politics with your friends, and you've changed your friends' minds? You don't," Grier says with a laugh. The point is in the struggle, and it's in that struggle where Carmichael thrives.
It's that small scale that feels most radical. Scenes will go on for page after page after page. That can lead to situations where something isn't working in the first taping and the writers will extensively rework it before the second taping, meaning the actors have to re-memorize those already long scenes within a few hours. But it also creates stories where the characters have room to express their individual points of view and argue for what they think is right.
Take "Porn Addiction," for instance. Spinning out of Cynthia's anger at how the pastor at the family's church revealed that he struggled with the malady mentioned in the episode's title, the story spun outward, with Cynthia first learning that her husband and both of her sons looked at porn at least semi-regularly, and then with Jerrod struggling to be comfortable with the thought that Maxine's own enjoyment of porn didn't somehow mean he was a deficient lover.
It's a story that seems lived-in, real. What's at stake isn't anything other than whether the characters will realize that none of these differences are enough to bury the love between them, but there's still that moment when you wonder if they might fall apart completely. When they inevitably forgive each other at episode's end, it feels earned, because the fights felt realer and rawer.
"It's real life," Carmichael says. "I'm from a family that argues and gets heated, but there's always love there. Those are the people that you get into heated debates with. You wouldn't fight this passionately with a stranger on the streets."
Why The Carmichael Show doesn't worry about seeming "dated"
The series that The Carmichael Show most resembles structurally is probably CBS's long-running hit Everybody Loves Raymond. That show, too, centered on a family with too-close ties who seemed to constantly get into each other's business, and it also featured stories that focused on one topic, which everybody in the family would offer their opinions about.
But where Raymond's fights were usually about teeny, tiny matters of little consequence to people outside the show's central family, Carmichael's fights focus on issues like the Black Lives Matter movement, the primary election, Bill Cosby's alleged crimes, and struggles with depression. They are, in other words, often of the moment. Viewers 20 years from now will probably still find resonance in the depression storyline, but will a punchline about Ted Cruz in tonight's finale make any sense to them?
That's straight out of Lear's playbook, and it's a deliberate reversal of how Raymond tried to make its own stories as timeless as possible. Yet it's one that both cast and crew relish.
"The Office is one of my favorite shows of all time, but it was as if they could have been on a spaceship. Their reality was theirs, but it had nothing to do with the real world," Grier says.
And besides, it's that engagement with the real that allows Carmichael to go to the sorts of dark, dramatic places that it gets to in some of its standout episodes. Characters can get genuinely angry with each other. They can have moments when they seem to break down. All is always put well in the end, but the show deliberately tests the bonds of this family in a way that other shows can't always.
In a way, the artificiality of the live studio audience trappings allows the show to do this, because it's constantly reminding you that you're watching a TV show. Things can get real, but never too real.
While cautioning that the show is always aware it needs to be funny and entertaining, Sanchez-Witzel points to how old sitcoms used to push for that dark, dramatic place as a matter of course.
TV comedies, by and large, have been scared away from that darker, more dramatic place in recent years. And though it doesn't live there, Carmichael's willingness to dig into it has made it already a TV treat. Now, as it moves into season three, it will be fun to see how deep it's willing to go.