By Jeff Jensen
Updated March 14, 2016 at 12:28 PM EDT
Chris Haston/NBC

The Carmichael Show

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  • TV Show

The Carmichael Show, the frank and funny quasi-autobiographical sitcom starring comedian Jerrod Carmichael, can be all talk and no action. It loves the sound of its voices — feisty, witty, opinionated voices, hashing out the issues of our day in long scenes of well-acted, well-written conversation. It can sometimes be as kinetically challenged as a presidential debate, but the vision and emotional resonance is considerable. So are the influences. Inspired by the socially conscious seventies comedies of Norman Lear (All In The Family, Maude), The Carmichael Show also possesses the scruff and immediacy of Fox’s Roc and the observational comedy of Seinfeld. Nothing ironic or quotidian here, though. The topics in Carmichael’s line of sight are monumental and sincere. Guns. Black Lives Matter. Death. In “Fallen Heroes,” one of two* new episodes that aired on Sunday, Carmichael and co-writer Mike Scully openly acknowledged the debt owed to another series, The Cosby Show, a landmark depiction of African-American life and progenitor of NBC’s “Must See TV” phenoms, in a story that openly wrestled with our media-facilitated relationship to Bill Cosby, who has been accused of sexually assaulting 55 women over 40 years. It was a breakout episode for the young series — a meaty and mirthful town hall discussion about our Cosby confusion and the ethics of media consumption that also showed us a healthy if messy way of talking about the murky and loaded subject matter.

*The night’s other episode, “The Funeral,” was a thematic compliment to “Fallen Heroes.” A drill-down on grief, the episode concerned the death of Jerrod’s grandfather, an abusive drunk, and how we deal with — or deny — the flaws of our father figures. It was a less buzzy but very affecting half hour, highlighted by the work of David Alan Grier, who plays Jerrod’s father and is consistently wonderful on this show.

The catalyst for the story was rather sly, given the charges against Cosby. We found Jerrod (Carmichael) trying to trick his girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West), into doing something he knew in his gut that she didn’t want to do — seeing Cosby in concert. Nostalgia nudged him. He grew up on The Cosby Show; it was part of his identity. He wanted to see a living legend in action, possibly for the last time. “Let’s be honest: this is kind of his farewell tour,” he said. “Who knows how long he’s going to be alive? Or free?” Maxine nearly fell for Jerrod’s misdirection; he promised her a veritable blind date with a clean, not-mean, family-values comedian. But when she saw the name on the tickets, she saw a dirty word. There was nothing clean, not-mean, values-y about Cosby, not anymore. She made it clear: no meant no. “The ironic part is you would have to knock me unconscious to get me to go see Bill Cosby,” quipped Maxine, a joke that made me squirm for making light of rape horror.

As they continued to debate the matter, Jerrod and Maxine visited his parents, Cynthia (Loretta Devine) and Joe (Grier), who were celebrating their 34th wedding anniversary with a relatively dull day at home. That was about to change. Jerrod tried to get his parents to go to the concert, too; they joined the discussion, as did Jerrod’s brother, Bobby (Lil Rel Howery), and later, Bobby’s ex-girlfriend, Nekeisha (Tiffany Haddish). The lively conversation that ensued was always entertaining and engrossing, and for the most part, it evolved naturally and in a character-driven way. It began by wrestling with the sticky entry point in any public discussion of matters such as these — the fairness owed to Cosby. Joe insisted that the man should be considered innocent until proven guilty, which can be a difficult point to argue without sounding unduly skeptical of victims. “Isn’t that what you would want if you were accused of something? Or would you want the Internet to decide?” Maxine’s retort was a valid point unto itself, thought it didn’t address his point about jumping to conclusions, and it could be seen as a cynical justification for the specious Internet lynch mob dynamics: “Our justice system also has a habit of letting people who are rich and famous off the hook.” (She didn’t cite examples, but my TV-saturated imagination filled in the blank with FX’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.) Maxine seemed convinced Cosby was guilty; Joe insisted they use the word “allegedly.” I’m sure NBC made the same insistence, too.

You could have devoted the entire half hour – and longer — to the issues the show clicked through quickly in these early minutes. Who should get the benefit of our doubt: Cosby or his accusers? What roles do personal feelings, past experience, and bias play in our armchair litigating of this case? Is the online court of public opinion obligated to play the same rules as a court of law or according to traditional media ethics?

But Carmichael and Scully pivoted away from these questions to tackle other concerns pertinent to consumers of entertainment, art, or anything, for that matter. What should be more important to us: the value of a product or the values of the people who make them? Can — should we — separate art from artist? Does fandom represent an endorsement of character? (An interesting question to consider during an election season of imperfect candidates.) Here, the conversation brought in a host of cultural figures as evidentiary exhibits, all linked to hostility or violence against women, children, or minorities. Michael Jackson. Woody Allen. Mark Wahlberg. Chris Brown. Bobby Brown. James Brown. (“Has there ever been a singer with the last name Brown who didn’t hit a girl?”) Joe believed he could continue eating at Chick-fil-A while remaining a supporter for gay rights … although he began to second-guess that assumption when he realized how much money he gave to Chick-fil-A on a weekly basis.

There was a well-designed scene that illustrated how our everyday lives are fraught with an abundance of hypocrisy and compromise, whether we have eyes to see it or not. It began when Nekeisha arrived and revealed she knew nothing about the charges against Cosby. She borrowed Maxine’s iPhone to read Cosby’s Wikipedia page, a gambit that allowed the storytellers to voice several of Cosby’s influence and achievements as a media trailblazer (that he paved the way for African-Americans on TV got a huge, knowing ovation from the studio audience) and activist/philanthropist for the sake of providing a balanced portrait. But after reading about the allegations against Cosby (“55 women?!”), she sided emphatically with Maxine. Nekeisha then explained why she didn’t own an iPhone herself. “You have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and like who you see,” she said. “I remember this one time, someone offered me a free iPhone, I had to tell them, ‘Hell no! I don’t like the way Steve Jobs treated his daughter! I’d rather use a pay phone than put one of those in my pocket.” (Sounds like someone just saw Steve Jobs.) She said this seemingly oblivious to the fact she had just used one. But the laugh came from watching shame bloom across Maxine’s face as she sheepishly slid the phone into her purse. (Another Apple product, Apple TV, also played a bit part in the story and was presented in a more flattering way. Siri’s voice was even used. I’m curious to know how Apple got comfortable with being involved in this episode.)

By the halfway point, I did begin to worry that the episode was becoming slightly unfair to Maxine. While it seemed to side with Maxine’s where-there’s-so-much-smoke-there-must-surely-be-some-fire logic (“55 women?!”), she also was receiving the brunt of the hypocrisy point. And why was the debate divided along gender lines? I think many men share Maxine’s POV on Cosby and want to withhold their dollars, time, and fandom from him as punishment, and I think many women find Joe’s innocent-until-proven guilty POV to be reasonable, and I think it’s perfectly possible for anyone, male or female, to hold both POVs at once. Yes, Bobby did take an anti-Cosby position, though not in solidarity with his alleged victims, but rather in protest of Cosby’s moralistic scolding of young African-American men. It might have been more interesting if Nekeisha was more sympathetic to Cosby, or if she had been converted even temporarily to Jerrod’s insistence that “talent trumps morals” to justify his want to see Cosby without feeling guilty about it.

But “Fallen Idols” took another interesting turn when Jerrod and Joe decided to go to the show, much to the anger and disappointment of Maxine and Cynthia. (Cynthia felt so betrayed, she took her sympathy for Cosby’s accusers to a new level, deeming herself one of them.) During the drive to the arena, they complained about the pressure they felt from their significant others to become better people. (As if Maxine’s objections to Cosby were all about rehabbing Jerrod’s character. That was some serious male narcissism there.) But being wrongheaded and impolitic — or rather, having freedom and safe space to be wrongheaded and impolitic in difficult, truth-seeking conversations, without being judged or shamed — was a point of this scene. When Jerrod asked his dad if he thought Cosby was guilty as charged, Joe told his son to roll up the window for fear that someone might hear the unpopular or ugly thing he had to say. And it was ugly, another queasy joke about rape horror. Joe wondered aloud about how Cosby’s accusers could be certain of their claims, given that they were “knocked out” during their alleged assaults. To his credit, Jerrod dismissed this line of thinking: “I don’t think you’re helping your point.” But it was Joe who made the biggest turn in the scene with a literal turnaround: after hearing a song on the radio that reminded him of Cynthia and what she meant to him, he realized he was disrespecting her and dishonoring their marriage by going to see Cosby. (Here, we began to see the decision to set this story against the backdrop of the Joe/Cynthia wedding anniversary begin to pay off with meaning.)

Joe dropped Jerrod off at the concert (actually, he dumped him in a bad neighborhood with a flashlight for defense and illumination — except it was broken; a metaphor, I think, for Jerrod’s lost-in-the-moral-dark buggy justifications and faulty enlightenment). But there were metaphorical broken flashlights for everyone in the episode’s final act. Joe then bought an expensive coat for Cynthia — on sale, from the back of some dude’s car. She accepted his gift, unbothered by the fact it was ill-gotten goods. In an example of the show’s admirable shadings and complexity, she used — or rather abused — one of the story’s conclusions (“It’s up to you to decide to where to draw the line”) when confronted her questionable choice: “Honey, I told you to draw your own line,” she said, “and right now, I’m drawing all kinds of lines around this coat!”

Jerrod followed through on his proverbial one-night stand with Cosby. His “talent trumps morality” argument might have had objective merit, but it might have also been disingenuous, too. He was led by selfishness, not code. He wanted what he wanted the way Cynthia wanted that coat and he robed himself with a framework to justify it. And yet, like a lot of cheaters with half a conscience, Jerrod returned came home feeling guilty about it. “I kept thinking, was it wrong to laugh? Was it wrong to be there?” he said. “Then I started to think about all the things you said. So congrats, Maxine. You ruined my idol for me.”

Maxine wasn’t going to be demonized for her righteousness, and she got a line full of wisdom. Cosby’s failings are his failings, not ours. His fans aren’t guilty by association; rather, he’s put them in a gross, unfair position. ”It’s not my fault. and it’s not your fault,” said Maxine. ”It’s Bill Cosby’s fault. He did this. He ruined his own reputation.” Wrestling with his understandable but problematic nostalgia and fandom, Jerrod’s final, bittersweet reflection was marked by grief and grace: “We all loved Bill Cosby at some point. He made us all laugh, and finding something that brings you joy is really hard to find so letting it go is even harder.” Jerrod, a child of Cosby, hurt and baffled by his father figure’s betrayal. In the end, though, he took on Maxine’s outrage and let his accusers get the last word. He and his family decided to watch The Cosby Show — “one more time, for old time’s sake” — on his parents’ new Apple TV. They joyously recalled favorite episodes, and then, as Jerrod clicked the remote, he quipped: “Shame what he did to those women, though.”

The unstated theme of “Fallen Heroes” was adultery, in various forms. Being unfaithful to the vows you make to your spouse; living contrary to your belief system either knowingly or unwittingly. There was something subversive in Joe’s riff about Martin Luther King Jr., another icon tainted by allegations of sexual infidelity. “The best thing our heroes can do is die before they disappoint us,” he said, before wondering aloud what MLK would be doing today if he hadn’t been assassinated. He imagined him reduced to doing mattress commercials. (“I HAD a dream … and you can, too, on a new Tempur-Pedic queen size memory foam mattress …”) American culture is obsessed with hypocrisy, especially in those who might lead us or tell us how to live. But The Carmichael Show confronts us on our hypocrisy about hypocrisy. I find myself thinking: How am I like Cynthia? Where do I draw the line? Do I take it far enough? What’s the cost to the way I live my life — what I consume; what I like; what gives me joy? Because I like my iPhone. It’s how I watch House of Cards.

“Fallen Heroes” covered a lot of ground in 22 minutes and covered most of it very well. So I feel like an ungrateful, hyper-critical ass for wishing it could have covered a little more. I wanted the episode to tackle more directly the issue of racial double standards when it comes to celebrity scandal. Are we easier or harder on the moral failures of black stars? The examples that “Fallen Heroes” used to make its points were effective enough, but they could have more timely (Marky Mark? Really?) and provocative. I was surprised Bill Clinton wasn’t pulled into the mix. I was even more surprised Carmichael and Scully didn’t cite any of the several high-profile incidents of busted integrity, domestic violence, and role model fail that have come out of pro sports the past several years, most notably the National Football League. The conversation might have been even more potent if The Carmichael Show had drawn from current programming — NBC is a major media partner of the NFL — in addition to The Cosby Show and Seinfeld, long dormant properties that NBC doesn’t own. How gutsy would it have been if the show referenced NBC anchorman Brian Williams, who was suspended from his job last year for his ethical malfunction?

Finally, “Fallen Heroes” could have addressed the issue of cultural forgiveness. The episode ended by alluding to the time in 2006 when Seinfeld star Michael Richards blew up his career with a racist and altogether bizarre meltdown during a stand-up routine. Now here’s a potential double standard. We wonder if The Cosby Show can or should be enjoyed anymore given what we know about Cosby. Does anyone wonder the same thing about Seinfeld? Why or why not? Regardless, the episode made no mention of a postscript to the Richards fiasco: his subsequent attempts at apologizing for it. They were flawed apologies, for sure, and the Internet tells me that many people doubted his sincerity. Still: there was an attempt. Should that have been acknowledged?

My quibbles and wants are hardly criticisms. They flatter an episode that was capable of stimulating much thought with entertaining talk and credible, poignant character turns. The meaning in “Fallen Heroes” didn’t lie in the right or wrong perspective of any single character but in all of them chasing, challenging and changing each other truth-seeking discussion. Their voices reflect (perhaps) and certainly assist the conversations in our homes, at work, in our heads. They gently nudge us to greater rigor and reflection in our thinking and talking, tweeting and blogging, but also greater grace for messy process. They speak to the value of The Carmichael Show, a lovely little flashlight for murky times.

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The Carmichael Show

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  • TV Show
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