Hi, I’m Kathryn, and I’ll be your guest recapper this week!
As many critics have noted, The Carmichael Show’s brilliance partially lies in the way it uses a deliberately conservative structure to explore tricky, controversial issues. We’re now so inured to the Norman Lear multi-cam style that it lulls us into a sense of security. Even when sitcoms that look like this veer into Very Special Episode territory, the fundamental structure of the show is soothing. How can it be current or controversial? It looks like an episode of Growing Pains!
Putting an iron fist in a velvet glove is central to The Carmichael Show’s premise, introducing the opportunity to use its main characters as a Socratic dialogue. Everybody gets to represent a perspective on the issue of the day, allowing the chosen topic to bounce around various angles and viewpoints. (Ever notice how Carmichael rarely has guest stars? They’re beside the point. Why bring in outside voices when the Carmichael family is a fully functional discursive forum all on its own?)
Of course, this is all familiar ground to Carmichael viewers, but I bring it up here because these elements are so fundamental to the show’s DNA that they tend to also be responsible for its successes. And, yes, they’re equally responsible for moments when it falls short. This week’s “Facebook Friends” does both.
The topic of the week is social media, as the episode’s title suggests. It’s a hard issue to talk about clearly at any length and in any context, much less in the skeleton of a fictional form that came to power long before personal computers existed. So, the degree to which “Facebook Friends” manages to say several compelling and funny things about what it’s like to live online is already impressive. Our entrance to the topic is Joe, who gets a “Facebook website” after asking Cynthia to take 25 different profile pictures before landing on one that he likes. He’s got 52 friends, Bobby’s reading his status updates out loud at the barbershop — he is “killing it.” Jerrod’s none too pleased by this, given that no one seems to enjoy his deliberately offensive Twitter persona as much as they like Facebook Joe. But he’s much better off than Cynthia, who gets quite angry when she learns that Joe’s ex-girlfriend Vicki “Muffin Top” Collette friended him, and is now clearly trawling for a reconnection.
The debate about social media raises a few divisive questions. What responsibility do you have to those in your private life for the things you post online? At what point does Joe’s fairly innocuous online friendship with Vicki become something that Cynthia has a right to police? Or, as we soon see, how much of a right does Jerrod have to get angry at Maxine for posting a naked photo of herself on Instagram? How much say should Maxine get in Jerrod’s troll-ish Twitter identity?
The broader issue — the responsibility caught up between a person’s private relationships and his or her public online persona — is the main focus of the episode, but the topic inevitably also pulls up a random assortment of comments about internet culture and social media. Some of these ring eerily true: Cynthia’s close-reading of Vicki’s “hey you” versus a simple “hey,” the description of a Facebook like as meaning “I see you” more than “I like this,” the pressure Joe feels to maintain his “killing it” Facebook presence, and the ease with which Cynthia glides into cyberbullying all feel accurate and funny.
Although the other descriptions sound a bit out of step with current social practices (oh hey, Snapchat exists!), for the most part, “Facebook Friends” is an impressive consideration of some important internet-culture debates. And the subject is unquestionably an interesting one — one I haven’t seen discussed thoughtfully all that often. How much your internet behavior reflects on your partner, and whether your partner should get a say in your choices, is a debate I’m very happy to see get thoughtful attention.
But this is one of those cases where The Carmichael Show’s strength — its truly surprising ability to raise issues in a format that feels unexpected and funny — also ends up being a bit of a trap. The three-cam structure, the incredibly static sets, the small cast voicing various viewpoints on a single topic, the sense that the whole thing is a pre-built box for purpose of having cultural debates — this is the gift of this premise.
The trouble, inevitably, is that after raising all these thoughtful, open-ended, and multi-layered ideas on the topic of the week, traditional sitcom form demands straightforward, uncomplicated closure. In this case, Joe decides to turn down Vicki’s invitation to get free apps at Chili’s, and decides that he’d rather take Cynthia upstairs for some old-school fun. Jerrod and Maxine resolve their social differences through compromise — Jerrod agrees to delete tweets that Maxine finds particularly offensive (as long as they’re not too popular), and Maxine takes down her revealing Instagram photo.
So the episode ends and the credit song kicks in, and next week we’ll move on to vaccines or GMOs or whether Game of Thrones has gone off the rails this season. Of course, a half-hour of television can’t explore every nuance of social-media anxieties. Cyberbullying, for instance, gets a scant mention as something Cynthia does to get back at Muffin Top Vicki, landing largely as a punchline, with little depth of thought on bigger concerns. There’s no mention at all of the different ways someone like Maxine encounters the internet as opposed to the ways Jerrod does. (The very fact that her provocative internet action is to post a nude photo of herself, while Jerrod’s parallel offense is to write contrarian Twitter comments, says quite a bit.)
No half-hour show on a giant meaty topic could ever fully discuss all of the important elements here. And The Carmichael Show usually does far better than I’d expect or even hope for. That’s why it’s hard to hold all the unsaid stuff against “Facebook Friends.” What’s more concerning is how the episode ends — with everyone friends again, and everything warmly resolved. This necessary feature of the show’s sitcom DNA can do a disservice to its goals.
“Facebook Friends,” like so many Carmichael episodes, is remarkably good at illustrating a debate about an important, difficult subject. But because it’s stuck with its sitcom structure, it only illustrates that story. The episode ends comfortably and reliably, making it easy for the show’s audience to set the debate aside without doing any thinking of their own. The show’s premise is an astoundingly good way to normalize contentious topics. But when it ends so reliably, so consistently, so customarily, it’s tough to say if it creates any debate outside its sitcom walls.
The Carmichael Show is great at starting big arguments, but it’s a little too good at ending them.