In the most recent installment of "black-ish," the failure of a Grand Jury to indict the cops who Tasered a young black man 37 times set the stage for strongest episode of any sitcom this season.
The Johnsons, an upscale intergenerational African-American family in Los Angeles, grappled with fierce, if differing emotions before leaving the comfort of their home together to join protesters. The writers deftly juggled humor – along with anger, fear, confusion and more than enough love and faith to support the episode’s title of "Hope."
The brutality case at the center of the action may have been fictional, but it resonated amid high-profile cases of police violence against African Americans in recent months. While of its time, the "black-ish" episode on ABC recalled another era in TV, when "All in the Family" used humor as turpentine to strip bare the cultural and political conflicts roiling the country in the early 1970s.
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"The Carmichael Show," which got off to a promising start in its initial six-episode run last year, would appear to have some surface similarities to "black-ish." The NBC sitcom features an intergenerational African-American family, albeit one from North Carolina and of more modest means than the Johnsons. But the deeper commonality rests in an "All in the Family"-like knack for tackling divisive issues head-on, through family members with diverging perspectives.
As "black-ish" raises the bar for all sitcoms with ambitions beyond grabbing cheap laughs, "Carmichael" returns Sunday in a bid to make its own mark on TV.
The show, starring comedian Jerrod Carmichael, features some sitcom tropes, almost straight out of "Everybody Loves Raymond": outspoken, seemingly set-in-their ways parents, a sad-sack brother and a smart, independent girlfriend who doesn’t quite fit in with the eccentric family.
But "Carmichae"” quickly distinguished itself with issue-driven plots that upended expectations on characters' reactions to crises.
In an episode about keeping guns in the house, Jerrod’s mother and girlfriend sided against him and his pistol-packing dad – until an accidental shooting and a robbery scare set off flip-flops galore. The devout Christian parents’ parrying with Jerrod’s half-Jewish, fully agnostic girlfriend seemed ripped out of the Archie Bunker-Mike Stivic playbook – until the digging up of past family history showed that keeping the faith isn’t always easy.
The most powerful installment focused on protests over a police shooting – spurring Jerrod’s mother and girlfriend to take to the streets of Charlotte while he and his father stayed home, angry over the incident, but too scarred by their own experiences with cops to see any point in taking action. "It’s all because I fit a description," Jerrod says in describing a racial profiling incident in which police slammed him to the ground.
But the episode didn’t skimp on humor, even when pushing boundaries. Jerrod’s rough-edged ex-sister-in-law notched uneasy laughs from the studio audience when she dragged in a flat screen TV she took from a looter. When Jerrod’s mother gets excited about the prospect of returning to her 1960s demonstration days, her husband quips, "Do you always get this giddy when someone gets shot?"
The show’s success so far can be attributed to smart writing, strong performances (especially from scene-stealers David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine as Jerrod’s parents) and a willingness to take on uncomfortable subjects. Carmichael reportedly plans to turn up the heat this season with an episode about the multiple sex assault allegations against Bill Cosby.
In the meantime, check out a preview of the return of “The Carmichael Show” as Jerrod Carmichael goes all-in on the "All in the Family" approach.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.