Lil Rel Howery as Bobby, Amber Stevens West as Maxine, David Alan Grier as Joe, Loretta Devine as Cynthia, Jerrod Carmichael as Jerrod.
It sounds cheap to call this a “trend” but … depression in sitcoms might just be becoming a trend. Make no mistake, it’s definitely a great trend, one that brings an important, but rarely discussed subject to many television viewers. The second season of You’re the Worst had a long narrative arc about Gretchen’s struggles with depression, while BoJack Horseman depicts numerous forms and causes of depression through its talking animals. With “The Blues,” The Carmichael Show becomes the most recent episode to also remark on this subject.
“The Blues” begins with a jarring character moment: Cynthia Carmichael crying alone in the kitchen. We’ve seen Cynthia happy, angry, and just, well, Cynthia, but we’ve never really seen her upset, especially not like this. When Maxine walks in, Cynthia orders her not to tell anyone — she basically threatens her with an iron, which illustrates how comedy can help when talking depression, as the laughs provide a necessary break in tension — but Maxine, of course, blabs to the rest of the family. (“Snitch, snitch, snitch!”) Naturally, the Carmichaels are all concerned, but Cynthia plays it off as no big deal, saying that she just gets “a little sad” or that she has all “these feelings.” When asked how long she’s been sad with “the blues,” as they call it, Cynthia dismissively waves it away as only “five, six, seven weeks.” This is both funny and telling: funny for the obvious reasons, but telling because it speaks to who Cynthia is as a person. We’re learning about the front she must keep up, the secrets she feels obligated to keep.
See, Cynthia is the perfect anchor for this episode. She’s the character you wouldn’t assume to have any internal suffering. It wouldn’t have been much of a surprise if it were any of the young’ns — primarily Jerrod, but he typically provides the outside lens to a situation — or even maybe Joe. Cynthia, however, tends to fit in the Strong Black Woman category: She’s fierce, she’s funny, she takes no shit from anyone in her family or outside of it, and she sticks to her guns. But more important, she holds the Carmichael household together. She’s a wife with an occasionally clueless husband and a mother who has to deal with two often clueless sons. She makes dinner. She irons clothes. She doles out advice. She keeps the house together, she keeps the family together, and she is the person at the center of the living room. Her outward appearance is one of a person who is put together and puts things together, but she’s struggling with this inexplicable sadness that makes her cry for weeks at a time. It should be noted that the B-story in “The Blues” is, cleverly, the Carmichaels all getting together to take a family portrait — an activity that is both desperately wanted and spearheaded by Cynthia herself — which puts an emphasis on her role as matriarch, as well the stress that her family occasionally imposes on her.
As “The Blues” suggests, it’s not just the fact that Cynthia is trying to look strong for her family — class differences also contribute to her instinct to keep depression a secret. “Working-class people don’t get depression. Depression is a luxury of wealth and free time,” she says. According to Jerrod, the Carmichael family was raised in an “environment where we were taught depression isn’t real,” a common belief within a lot of working-class and black families. It’s not deemed a “real” illness because it isn’t strictly physical, so instead, it’s often dismissed as someone just being sad or having a rough time for a bit. With “The Blues,” however, The Carmichael Show aims to normalize depression across all classes and races.
This ties into the central conflict of the episode, which is that Cynthia refuses to go to therapy but Maxine, who studies psychology, believes it’s a good idea. When Jerrod refuses to take the family photo until Cynthia goes to therapy, she gives in (“I am going to wear a big hat and sunglasses like Jackie O”) but —surprise! — it doesn’t go well. There’s more back and forth, and the real kicker comes when Cynthia eventually has a breakthrough, thanks to Wendy’s. The reveal of Cynthia’s issues — not knowing what she wants because she’s so focused on what everyone else wants — through the use of a mediocre fast-food restaurant is hilarious and smart, boiling down a serious problem without being overly serious. And that’s the crux of the episode: It balances the serious with the funny, all while breaking down stigmas.