The Situation Room: How 'The Carmichael Show' and 'black-ish' Are Bringing Real Talk Back Home

How two shows are using old-school methods to produce novel results.

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Complex Original

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“The best art recognizes that life is messy, inconsistent and complicated—and it strives to depict that messiness in all of its beautiful, evocative ambiguity. “ That’s Norman Lear, the man responsible for deconstructing the traditional American sitcom with programs like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons. His shows intentionally (and hilariously) disrupted the escapist creature comforts viewers were used to. Before Lear’s brand of counterprogramming began in the early '70s, shows like Andy Griffith, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched dominated the television terrain with safe, apolitical fluff. The most aggressive thing to happen in an onscreen living room was Dick Van Dyke somersaulting over an ottoman onto his back. 

Lear’s shows brought highly combustible, typically taboo topics like race, religion, gender and class to the table and poked and prodded them with forks and knives in an era where food for thought was never on the TV dinner menu. His brand of incisive comedy was both medicine and applesauce. In essence, Lear introduced British kitchen sink realism into America’s living rooms.

Not only did Lear’s groundbreaking, politically-charged shows establish a tension between art and reality in living rooms across the country, the living rooms within the show themselves took on dual roles as an instantly recognizable setting and a fully-realized character. It was a cozy space that invited viewers in with the casual beckoning of your most hospitable neighbor. While you were sitting in the comfort of your own living room, you could seamlessly transport into that of your favorite TV family. 

So when the sitcom began speaking on polarizing issues that most American’s try to sweep under the rug, the living room as a setting evolved into something that felt more like a military Situation Room. It was a safe space to discuss the unsafe world around us, where the family could divide into opposing schools of thought, deliberate on the central conflict and (hopefully) come to a civil resolution. The TV living room was a microcosm of our own, existing within our own reality like a Russian nesting doll. 

But TV living rooms are largely no longer the protective membrane for the nuclear family as sitcoms have stretched in ambition and scope. Prestige comedies like Arrested Development, The Office, and The Last Man on Earth abandoned the self-contained universes of the traditional sitcom with labyrinthine narratives, infinite cast growth, and artful direction and production design. They more closely mirror the structure of serialized dramas like The Sopranos, only with way more dick jokes.   

But shows like black-ish and The Carmichael Show are here to restore that feeling. The two shows are wildly different in tone and structure but are orbiting one another thanks to Lear’s gravitational pull as an influence. Both shows hit the traditional, playful sitcom beats to unpack deadly serious cultural issues that network TV, over the past few decades, has shied away from in order to not to alienate core demographics or their corporate benefactors. 

Just last week, black-ish reached a new artistic apogee with “Hope,” a bottle episode where the Johnson family is confined to the living room for its entire duration. They discuss police brutality, entrenched American racism, and what some members of the family believe to be the illusion of progress. All of these complicated issues sparked from watching a live CNN report on whether a cop involved in the most recent case of racialized brutality will face indictment. 

Andre (Anthony Anderson, who deserves all the awards for his triumphant acting in this episode) has lost all faith in the system. His wife Rainbow (the always impressive Tracy Ellis Ross) has faith that justice still exists and wants to protect the innocence of her youngest twins. Oldest son Marcus wants to mobilize and march for change. Middle daughter Zoey has been rendered ambivalent by both rage and fear. Grandparents Ruby and Pops (Jennifer Lewis and Lawrence Fishburne) are stunned that anyone is still surprised this type of injustice still occurs. And the babies are just worried about eating Chipotle for dinner, though they gradually adopt and parrot what they’re hearing from the adults in the room, as children do.

Over the course of black-ish’s 30-minute episode, every nuanced facet of every point of view surrounding these issues was laid out for the viewer, presenting the hard-hitting questions that only the viewers can answer for themselves. It was a masterstroke in theater, in drama, and in reflecting the type of uncomfortable conversations many Americans are forced to have in the comfort of their own homes. 

The Carmichael Show similarly comes out swinging for the fences in its season two premiere. It’s called “Fallen Heroes,” so you can probably guess where this is heading: to Bill Cosby. Jerrod comes up on two tickets to see Cosby perform standup, so he asks his girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West) to accompany him. She refuses because, it should go without saying, Cosby is a monster accused of raping over 50 women. Jerrod can’t wrap his head around her inability to separate the man from the art, but doesn’t argue with her because he would never “take her against her will.” 

It’s not until Jerrod and Maxine arrive at his parent’s house that the ugly details of the Cosby debate are fully unpacked. Each family member represents the various positions you’ve undoubtedly heard in your real life discussions of Cosby. Jerrod’s father (David Alan Grier) is firm in his “guilty until proven innocent” morals. His mother (Loretta Devine) represents the murky middle ground of “seeing both sides” of the story. His brother Bobby represents indifference, and Bobby’s girlfriend is the “fuck Cosby!” absolutist who also refuses to use iPhones because of Steve Jobs’ mistreatment of his employees. And then there’s Maxine, who stands in solidarity with the victims of Cosby’s grotesque behavior and against the rape culture that perpetually blames them for their trauma. The family lay their convictions on the living room table for us to either relate to, reconsider, or rebuke. 

But then Jerrod begins to dissect what he sees as the fine line between solidarity and sanctimony. Why did Maxine, as he points out, continue to watch Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine at the height of the director’s molestation allegations? Why do we not think twice about going to see a Mark Wahlberg movie even though we know of the hate crimes he committed as a youth in Boston? How can you support LGBT rights while enjoying a Chick-fil-A sandwich? 

Jerrod begins to poke holes in his family’s respective stances, and in the process, his own. The show never paints him as the moral compass, even if he does get the last word. Jerrod is the voice of the show, but he’s not always the voice of reason. He is more concerned with the power of conversation and how it can lead to new subjective truths rather than being the arbiter of those truths. The blood-pressure-raising questions are asked, but we as the viewer are left to define where we draw the proverbial line in the sand. Consistency in our convictions is the prevailing message. How we define those convictions is not the show’s responsibility. That’s up to us.

This episode of The Carmichael Show is brilliant in execution. It will surely inspire the most pedantic of thinkpieces, and that’s a great, healthy, necessary thing. With black-ish and The Carmichael Show, the American sitcom is witnessing a return to form where the living room discussions on screen become a Rorschach test for the families watching at home in their own living rooms. That messy, inconsistent, complicated art is an extension of our own reality. And if we can’t get real or messy in our living rooms, then where can we?

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