No topic is off limits for The Carmichael Show. Only two episodes into its second season, Jerrod Carmichael and his writing team have already tackled one of the most controversial, horrifying, and complicated issues in popular culture: Bill Cosby. "Fallen Heroes" remarks on Cosby in an intelligent and nuanced way, paying careful attention to everything from gender and generational divides to the ongoing debate about personal behavior versus professional talent. It does all of this with impressive grace, and in front of a laughing studio audience.
The episode kicks off when Jerrod surprises Maxine with tickets to see Bill Cosby and she immediately balks at the idea. Jerrod's argument is that he's loved Cosby since he was a kid — as many have! — and plus, this could be Cosby's farewell tour because "who knows how long he's going to be alive. Or free." Maxine's response, "The ironic part is you would have to knock me unconscious to get me to go see Bill Cosby" quickly sets up the dark humor of the half-hour, letting us know that we're in for funny but uncomfortable jokes.
To pull the rest of the Carmichael family into the discussion, "Fallen Heroes" also takes place during Jerrod's parents' 35th anniversary, which is excuse enough for Jerrod to offer the tickets to them as a gift. We then watch a remarkably accurate representation of the arguments surrounding Cosby, from the staunchly against (Maxine) to the wavering (Cynthia, who questions using the tickets after she's reminded that the number of Cosby accusers is now up to 55) to the "innocent until proven guilty" supporters (Joe). Bobby (who is mostly pissed at Cosby's demands that young black men pull up their pants) and Nekeisha (who managed to remain totally ignorant of the scandal) round out the crew. It's basically a microcosm of the internet in one living room.
What truly sets The Carmichael Show apart from its peers is its dedication to representing all of the viewpoints on a subject, while paying close attention to the particularly complicated aspects of that subject. "Fallen Heroes" isn't about the family deciding whether or not they believe Bill Cosby assaulted those 55 women. The episode is questioning whether or not it's possible — or even morally justifiable — to separate an abuser's horrific behavior from his talent. This certainly isn't a new problem. Both Woody Allen and Michael Jackson are mentioned as examples (Maxine enjoys their work, even though she knows the allegations against them), while two other great jokes include the family absently wondering if they can watch Ted 2 despite Mark Wahlberg committing a hate crime, and bringing up Michael Richards when they decide to start binging Seinfeld. Cosby is just the latest example of a problem that persists in popular culture, and it's especially complex within the black community.
In fact, "Fallen Heroes" is a perfect example of why diverse actors, writers, and television shows are so necessary and important if we want to understand our lives and our culture. A series like Modern Family would never provide the same kick on Cosby as The Carmichael Show does. "Fallen Heroes" manages to put into words — funny words! — the strange crossroads that many black people, myself included, have when it comes to Cosby.
Again, it's not a question of if he did it — I absolutely believe he is guilty — but instead, a question of what this does to the legacy of his comedy and The Cosby Show. That show was important to black people because it gave us the opportunity to see ourselves and our skin color on television — and to see ourselves reflected in a positive light, not just as wordless waiters or heartless gangsters. The Cosby Show was something that many black families watched together. It was a bonding experience between parents and children, and between siblings. It was also just plain good. It's impossible to watch it today without the women's horrifying allegations in the back of your mind, but it's also hard to just completely forget The Cosby Show. Its place in pop culture, sitcom, and black history is too vital.
That's the meat of the discussion between the Carmichaels. As Jerrod says, "This isn't about guilt or innocence. It's about The Cosby Show." Jerrod's not totally blind to what Cosby did, but his vision is a bit blurry because he can't let go of Cosby's influence.
Eventually, Jerrod and Joe decide to go to the show. During the car ride, Jerrod can't help but ask his father if he thinks Cosby assaulted all of those women. In one of my favorite bits, Joe first instructs Jerrod to roll up the window before they continue talking, as if he's worried about other black people hearing him. (This calls to mind similar discussions surrounding O.J. Simpson in the ’90s; many black people felt he was guilty, but wouldn't dare say so in front of others.) Then, in an even funnier bit, Joe bails on the show because he doesn't want to pay $35 for parking — he says it's the "principle" of it; Jerrod, in disbelief, retorts, "We're on the way to a Bill Cosby show" — but really, it's because Joe feels guilty both for going to the show and leaving his wife alone on their anniversary.
So they return home, no closer to a definite conclusion on their feelings towards Cosby. Instead, the Carmichaels remain at a complex crossroads: They want to vilify Cosby, but they still want to watch The Cosby Show. This is exactly what they do, but now they watch with new eyes.