LOS ANGELES – At 94, Norman Lear is still punching the clock, most recently as an adviser on a reboot of his series “One Day at a Time.” But if the “All in the Family” creator ever decides to retire, fans of social issue sitcoms can take comfort in knowing that his rightful heir has arrived.
At first glance, Jerrod Carmichael, a 30-year-old African-American stand-up, may not seem to have much in common with the groundbreaking producer — unless you’ve actually watched “The Carmichael Show.” Not many have. The second season finished 100th in the ratings among network series, which explains why NBC kept the series on the bench for more than six months, dropping fresh episodes in the dog days of summer between a show in which Steve Harvey acts befuddled by little big shots and reruns of “This Is Us.”
As in Lear’s sitcoms, the characters — in this case a middle-class family in North Carolina — spend almost all their time under one roof, making minimal contact with the outside world. The tight quarters and familiarity with one another inspire no-holds-barred arguments on issues so volatile they would wipe the smirk right off Tucker Carlson’s face.
In Wednesday’s premiere, the clan bickers over the definition of date rape and the potentially unromantic ritual of prior consent. (Carmichael’s safe word with his feminist girlfriend? “Mike Pence.”) Future episodes tackle mall shootings, euthanasia and patriotism.
The conversation can be unsettling. In one exchange, Carmichael’s father, who might be right at home sharing a beer with Archie Bunker, argues that slavery might have actually been a plus since it kept his generation from having to grow up in Africa, where “we’d probably be starving to death.”
“As a stand-up, I’m used to going to somewhat uncomfortable territory with my material,” said Carmichael, who co-created the series and whose top-notch special “Jerrod Carmichael: 8” is available on HBO’s streaming sites. “I don’t seek it out for the sake of it, but if an audience feels a little uncomfortable, that’s a good sign that we are going toward true feelings as opposed to just going through the rhythms. It’s like jazz. You don’t want the rhythm to just be mindless laughter.”
When the sitcom debuted in 2014, I thought the comedian was pushing too hard and even suggested that NBC should replace it with a reboot of “Joey.” But Carmichael has improved as an actor, and so has the chemistry among his cast members. Conversations that once seemed forced now feel all too natural in an era when everyone is a political pundit.
“When I have dinner with my family, everyone pipes in,” said David Alan Grier, who deserves Emmy consideration for his portrayal of the dad. “Some people have read what we’re talking about. Some haven’t. Some people have gone to college. Others haven’t. But everyone at the table feels they have the right to weigh in. That’s what I like as an actor. It feels like realism.”
It’s the kind of attitude that Lear brought to his canon, a tradition not lost on Carmichael.
“He’s been fearless in his work from the start, and I really admire that,” he said of Lear. “That’s the gold standard.”