L-R: Amber Stevens West and Jerrod Carmichael.
Photo: Vivian Zink/NBC
Last summer, The Carmichael Show quietly appeared on NBC’s schedule with little fanfare. The entire first season was burned off in three short weeks — just six episodes in total. Nevertheless, comedian Jerrod Carmichael and his titular sitcom turned out to be refreshing, intelligent, and actually funny.
Fortunately, NBC recognized that it had a gem on its hands — the many positive reviews didn’t fall on deaf ears, it seems — and gave The Carmichael Show another, better shot. And that’s how the second season begins: with a preview episode on a Wednesday night, before the series moves into its regular Sunday slot.
“Everybody Cheats” will likely be the entry point of the series for many viewers who didn’t get a chance to check it out during the summer — though I implore newcomers to watch the first season on Hulu, particularly episodes like “Protest” and “Gender.” This is a solid-enough introduction, as it tackles a social issue that’s not as controversial as police brutality or gun ownership, but nevertheless provides both conversation starters and great setups for comedy.
The Carmichael Show is a throwback that can best be compared to “controversial” thought-provoking sitcoms of yore, like All in the Family. The biggest difference? The Carmichael Show provides a unique viewpoint by often exploring issues through the lens of a black family (and Jerrod’s mixed-race girlfriend, Maxine, played by Amber Stevens West). As a result, sometimes this show gets a little more tricky and complicated than your average family-sitcom squabbles about chores — the next episode is centered on Bill Cosby, and I’m sure that will be one for the books — though sometimes it’s a seemingly simplistic, ongoing family conversation.
“Everybody Cheats” is an example of the latter. When Jerrod’s mother, Cynthia (Loretta Devine), spots her best friend’s husband with another woman, the shock sends her into a tailspin: Should she tell Karen about her husband’s apparent infidelity? Should she just stay out of it? What should she do? As always, each character has a different viewpoint and everyone can’t wait to share their opinions.
The main argument is about the ethics of telling Karen. Jerrod’s dad, Joe (David Alan Grier) sides with his wife’s belief that Cynthia should say out of it because Karen “can’t blame the messenger if you don’t deliver no message.” In a funny aside, Jerrod is more concerned with the financials of Karen’s marriage. He believes that cheating is natural for successful rich people. According to Jerrod, an income of $50,000 to $100,000 — the bracket in which he himself lands — means a man has thought about doing it, but won’t act on those urges. Once a man cracks $100,000, he has definitely cheated.
Eventually, thanks to Maxine’s coaxing (“Do you want to live in a world where powerful men get to do whatever they want with no consequences?”), Cynthia decides that she should tell Karen. The call predictably doesn’t go well; Karen believes that Cynthia made it all up just because she’s jealous. This segues into a honest and somewhat depressing conversation about how no one ever blames the cheater in an affair. Using the Clintons as an example, Jerrod makes smart points: Monica Lewinsky is a “homewrecker,” Hillary is “weak” because she should’ve left, but Bill is still celebrated as being cool. (Joe hilariously points out a similar thing with Ben Affleck: He cheated and “became Batman!”) This is the sort of conversation that The Carmichael Show does so well. Though the scene is stuffed with jokes, it still manages to convey a truth, accurately describing the screwed-up way that society tends to treat victims and reward cheaters — and the gender dynamics that go into it.
What’s also great about “Everybody Cheats” is that the episode turns this big issue into something personal. Maxine, sick of being told she doesn’t have life experience (besides the ALS ice-bucket challenge and going to Six Flags), reveals that she once cheated on someone in a relationship. And what’s more, it was the boyfriend she was with when she first started seeing Jerrod — prompting him to exclaim, “I’m a mistress! I thought I was your Jackie Kennedy, I didn’t know I was your Marilyn.” Here, infidelity switches from a more abstract concept involving outside friends to a more private, delicate problem between Jerrod and Maxine. That’s what I love about this show: It takes big issues and folds them into little pockets within the family, providing us with a multitude of takes. I love it.
In a funny little twist, it doesn’t really bother Jerrod that Maxine cheated on her boyfriend with him, but he’s very offended that he wasn’t in on the whole situation. He missed out on the fun of a love triangle: all those forbidden texts, all those stolen glances. He also jokes that he’s wasted time “working so hard at being a good boyfriend when I didn’t have to.” Still, jokes aside, this turns into a very real (and private) conversation when Maxine and Jerrod dissect the origins of their relationship together — and the fact that Maxine never quite broke up with the guy, but simply “phased him out.” (Jerrod likens this to getting out of a gym membership, which tells me he’s never joined a gym. Those contracts are ironclad.) Maxine’s revelation rattles Jerrod, even though he consistently cracks jokes about it. He’s worried that if she cheated once, then she could possibly do it again — and this time, he’ll be the sucker. He wants her to promise that she’ll never cheat, but she knows that she can’t do that because the “possibility of cheating is apparent in every relationship.”
The couple does come to a conclusion, though: They promise that this newfound fear will just make them stronger. All in all, “Everybody Cheats” is a great introduction for newcomers and a strong follow-up to the show’s first season. With next week’s Cosby episode on the horizon, there’s plenty of reason to believe that The Carmichael Show will only get better.