The one-two punch of “Fallen Heroes” and “The Funeral” provided an interesting contrast for The Carmichael Show last night. Both episodes were concerned with how to celebrate someone’s legacy when that person happens to be a terrible guy. Despite the similarities, the hour of television didn’t feel repetitive at all, but refreshing and funny. The most successful element was how The Carmichael Show took a very public issue (Bill Cosby) and made it personal (by exploring the Carmichaels’ feelings on the matter and also viewing Cosby through the lens of a black family/black culture) but then, in “Funeral,” took a personal issue (the death of Joe’s father) and turned it into a universal experience (the bigger question of how to “celebrate” a person after he died if that person hurt you when he was alive).
In “The Funeral,” Joe learns that his father died and the family has to go to the funeral but they — surprise! — have differing opinions about how to deal with death. See, death becomes more complicated when the person wasn’t exactly great while he was alive. Joe’s father was an awful dad: a drinker, gambler, and cheater who abandoned the family. There really isn’t anything to celebrate about Grandpa Carmichael, but Joe, who is tasked with writing the eulogy, can’t exactly tell a church full of mourners the truth. Jerrod doesn’t see an issue with calling out his grandfather’s actions because he’s still angry about how Joe was treated.
Meanwhile, Cynthia supports her husband’s decision and tries to help him write the eulogy, all while not-so-secretly planning to sing a song. Bobby goes the route of public mourning, making a show of missing his grandfather and trying to get that perfect Instagram photo with a corpse to post to his followers so they know that he’s sad. In the most straight-up comedic moment of the episode, Maxine has never been to a funeral and isn’t quite sure how to act. In a dress that Cynthia deems is too short, Maxine (who “acts like a cat in a Fancy Feast commercial”) floats in and out of the room, visibly uncomfortable with being in a room with a dead person. Maxine’s plot hinges entirely on laughs, providing a nice balance to the more serious A-story.
For the entirety of “Funeral,” Joe finds himself repeatedly defending his decision to write a positive eulogy. He believes that writing this eulogy isn’t insincere or ignoring the bad parts of his father, but instead it’s about respecting the dead. “It is not insincere to talk about the dead with respect,” he tells Jerrod, but Jerrod isn’t having it. Jerrod would prefer his father were honest about his grandfather, and that people need to know this. The two clash about this multiple times, all while Joe is still struggling with the eulogy. (In one of my favorite jokes, Joe claims he has “Dale Earnhardt Syndrome” rather than writer’s block.) Occasionally, the scene is interrupted by a Maxine sighting or by Bobby obsessively trying to get the most perfect mourning photo for his followers, but for the most part, the scene really only concerns Jerrod and Joe.
Joe can’t figure out why it’s so hard to write the eulogy (“Why is it so hard to piece together nice things to say about my father?,” he asks, answering the question himself) as Cynthia tries to help by providing colorful language and euphemisms (instead of “irresponsible jerk who abandoned his family,” Cynthia suggests “free spirit who liked the outdoors,” and then eventually she just starts scribbling down the lyrics to “Candle in the Wind” and “Rocket Man”). It’s similar to the Cosby concept: How do we talk about Cosby’s work now? How are we going to mourn his death (if we do)? But it’s also both universal and personal: How do we deal with the abusers in our own lives? What do we do after they die? There isn’t a right answer; you can mourn or not mourn, mourn for public consumption but hate the dead in private, attend the funeral or stay at home and watch Six Feet Under instead. It’s all personal preference.
Eventually, Joe has a breakdown at the funeral, admitting to Jerrod that Grandpa Carmichael once hit Joe so bad with a belt “you can still see scars” and that Joe once walked in on his father choking the life out of his mother. It’s a small master class in acting from David Alan Grier, adding depth and poignancy to his sometimes one-note character. After a surprise chat with his mother, Joe finally decides to just not do a eulogy at all. It’s not a perfect solution but it’s a compromise, and that’s what the Carmichaels do best.