It takes exactly one minute for Season 3 of “The Carmichael Show” to deliver a moment when the air completely leaves the room. Maxine (Amber Stevens West) gives the Carmichael family the news that one of her friends has just shared a personal story of being sexually assaulted. Between the three-walled Carmichael living room set and the studio audience, both rooms fall silent.
“The Carmichael Show” has never been afraid to present its audience with an idea or moment that cuts through the belly laughs and goes right for something that feels, for lack of a better term, real. Now in its third season, that practice is inextricably woven into the show’s DNA. The best news for fans and potential newcomers alike is that once that sharp intake of breath the subsides, it’s still one of the funniest shows on TV.
Even when tackling these heavy issues — the new season starts out with frank discussions of rape, patriotism and assisted suicide — “The Carmichael Show” mines its best moments of comedy from two people or two opposing sides of a family acknowledging the perspective gap they have between them. And though the show frequently divides various family members along gender or age lines, “The Carmichael Show” has never set up an easy, formulaic us vs. them pattern where the audience can easily predict where everyone will stand.
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Having a never-better ensemble helps bring some increased nuance to this season’s big talks. Playing a character that shares his name, Jerrod Carmichael consistently puts himself in positions that play to his strengths as a performer. He can play the willfully ignorant boyfriend and understated bearer of hard truths with equal ability, sometimes even within the same episode.
Though she doesn’t always end up being the show’s moral arbiter, West has done an excellent job shepherding Maxine’s perspective into situations where more closed-off viewpoints have been set against her. No longer a friendly outsider or just the main character’s girlfriend, Maxine’s independent and steadfast ideals are working their way into the rest of the family.
Loretta Devine is still perfectly cast as Cynthia, a woman who delights in skirting her own tiny hypocrisies as much as she does protecting and caring for a family she loves. Fresh off of his breakout role in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” Lil Rel Howery as Bobby has emerged as the show’s go-to punchline sommelier. More often than not, it’s he who gets to deliver the pin that bursts the balloon of tension that you can see inflating before the Carmichaels’ very eyes. Bobby’s ex-wife Nekeisha still drops by, giving Tiffany Haddish a chance to unleash one-liners as only she can. (Nekeisha’s explanation of her personal safeword is one of the best jokes of the season so far.)And David Alan Grier is nothing short of a national treasure as Joe, the Trump-supporting patriarch who unspools his particular brand of wisdom for anyone who will listen. Like Carmichael, Season 3’s early episodes give Grier a chance to play a deeper, more sensitive side of Joe, a more vulnerable layer that shows just what he and the show are capable of.
The “let’s talk” approach of this season’s marketing campaign isn’t just lip service or a push to provoke new viewers into tuning in. Nearly every one of these early episodes shows how communication is its own form of power, with the ability to bring about a certain kind of understanding that can open someone’s eyes even if it doesn’t change their mind.
While still retaining the jokes-per-minute rate that the show steadily continues, “The Carmichael Show” also addresses the fact that not talking about these issues can lead to an unhealthy cycle of repression. This is a family that chooses to show its feelings in very distinct ways. That these discussions often turn to playful jabs at each other’s expense is a natural extension of what it means to broach some of these larger-than-life topics. As it pushes these characters outside their comfort zone, it shows us that these are topics that we ignore at our own peril, especially when we can laugh while acknowledging our differences.
“The Carmichael Show” takes care to note the incremental changes in each of these characters’ overall perspectives. But it also isn’t afraid to let these episodes end with characters still firmly on different sides of a particular issue. From Joe to Bobby to Maxine, these characters are defined enough that when changes of heart do happen, it means so much more than the typical episode-ending reset that usually brings a multi-cam family back to its well-established normal.
As the Carmichaels currently stand, the diversity of experience and opinions are delivered alongside an overarching sense of love and companionship that keeps them all together. The first two seasons, even as they approached difficult issues of their own, laid the groundwork so that when when true tragedy strikes, this is a family that’s already proven that they care for each other in spite of their differences. It’s not one family against the world, it’s a family against the tiny parts of themselves that these mammoth subjects bring out.
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It’s also impressive to see how the show has managed to make evergreen episodes that feel relevant to late spring 2017. There’s just a right amount of acknowledgment to last year’s election (Joe has a few thoughts on how his candidate of choice has performed in office), but there’s also the most surprising use of a song from “Dear Evan Hansen” that you’ll see anywhere.
“The Carmichael Show” still does all of this within the familiar confines of a network TV comedy: The socially relevant half-hour isn’t a revolutionary development, but Jerrod Carmichael and company are continuing the proud tradition of capturing the particular rhythms of interfamily debates, pausing just long enough to let the audience reward them for their authenticity. In the end, “The Carmichael Show” is a rare sitcom that isn’t afraid to call out its characters when they start acting like sitcom characters. And it makes for quite the conversation starter.
“The Carmichael Show” Season 3 premieres Wednesday, May 31 at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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