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‘The Carmichael Show’ Goes “Very Special,” and Bravely So
June 16, 2017  | By Linda Donovan  | 12 comments

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Details of this season’s The Carmichael Show's recent “Grandma Francis” episode, which aired on 6/7/17, are discussed below.]

Despite the platinum-plated offerings of Fargo, Better Call Saul, and so many others, for some of us, sitcoms are still a preferred form of television.

Drama is good. Comedy is essential. Laughter isn’t just the best medicine; it’s a daily requirement.

I was initially drawn to The Carmichael Show for one reason — the name. I was born with it. (Before the married name here.) Not that the Pennsylvania Carmichaels could rise to the level of the TV clan, but the supply of bad puns and goofiness set the table for my diet of TV comedy.

But beyond the title, the show has interest because it dares to take risks other sitcoms do not.

Just as drama has experienced radical change (think Westworld and Mr. Robot), comedy is getting its share of revolution, too.

Times have changed, and the borders of what we as audiences agree to be within bounds of funny are changing right along with them.

Anyone who has grown up with television the way I have – the way most of us has – is accustomed to the “very special episode.” Historically, it meant that a sitcom, usually light in tone, was about to tackle a serious topic, with fewer than usual laughs.

Some went famously and fearlessly, like when Maude took on abortion in 1972. Others were almost rote emotional dives. And hence came the often referenced joke, “next, on a very special Blossom…

But that doesn’t mean that sitcoms can’t, or shouldn’t, go topical or serious.

The Carmichael Show, developed by comedian Jerrod Carmichael and Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Undeclared), stars Carmichael, David Alan Grier, Loretta Devine (below) and other incredibly talented comedic actors, has reprised the classic Norman Lear formula of bringing difficult issues to the table with a pitch perfect blend of gravitas and humor – a very difficult bar to balance, and not easily done.

It’s not the only show on TV working that line, of course, but it takes turns and risks that aren’t often expected.

In its three-season run of just 23 episodes so far (as of June 14), topics such as gun control, consent, gender, the 2016 election, fallen heroes (Bill Cosby), Plan B (birth control), and in a recent episode, Alzheimer’s.

So how is one Carmichael Show episode “more special” than another? “Grandma Francis,” an episode on Alzheimer’s, not only took on an incendiary issue – from every side – it then threw a few curveballs before crossing social borders as only comedy can.

Joe Carmichael (Grier, top) and his sons, Jerrod (Carmichael, top) and Bobby (Lil Rel Howery, below, right), go to see Joe’s Mom, Francis (Marla Gibbs, top), at her request. She’d brought them there to inform them of her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Joe responds, “Wait. That’s your news?...Um, Mom, we’ve known about this for six months.”

Grandma Francis’ shock at the discovery she’d already broken the news was priceless, as was the take back to the Carmichael men. Their eye rolls only heightened her embarrassment.

Full disclosure, as one who has been involved with this dreaded disease, take it from me – you have to laugh to get through, and it can all be funny at times… as is the Carmichael boys’ reluctance to taste the cookies she bakes for them.

Norman Lear would approve. And has.

But it’s her second request (and it is jolting) that sets this episode of The Carmichael Show apart, and maybe the future of modern sitcoms going forward, as well.

Grandma Francis has decided she's going to end her life so she won't have to experience the indignities of Alzheimer's.

Joe wants nothing to do with it. Jerrod and Bobby react differently, perhaps letting her do what she wants. Joe reminds them he is a little bit closer to the situation, as her son, than they are as her grandsons.

Without giving away the resolution to this startling turn, let’s just say The Carmichael Show doesn’t spare one thing – it’s commitment to finding the comedy in even the bleakest of subjects.

Final exit aside, we’ve all been in the position of trying to decide whether to respect the choices of loved ones or push through and do what we think is best. Perhaps not this particular situation, but this disease is rife with similar crossroads. As are many others.

These are the toughest moments. “Grandma Francis” shows that tough doesn’t mean unfunny – especially given the realities of the disease, as Alzheimer’s caregivers know all too well, mean Grandma won’t really even be aware of the indignities she fears when the time comes.

However you feel about “Grandma Francis,” we can likely agree it’s a brave choice of the writers and producers. Illness isn’t pretty, or a subject to easily broach.

But when it’s on The Carmichael Show, sometimes you have to laugh.

(NOTE: The episode scheduled for Wed., 6/14, titled “Shoot-up-able,” was pulled by NBC in deference to the news of that day – shootings in Virginia that injured four, including the House Majority Whip, Steve Scalise, and one at a UPS Customer Center in San Francisco that resulted in the death of three men as well as the shooter. On an episode of Chelsea, taped for Friday 6/16, Carmichael said while he understands the decision – anticipated but still pending at the time of the talk show taping – he doesn't necessarily agree with it. "A lot of times when things like this happen and someone wants to talk about it in an outlet that’s not the news, people will say, ‘Too soon.’ But when is it not too soon? Unfortunately, these things happen constantly, and it’s a thing that breaks all of our hearts.")

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Jan 12, 2023   |  Reply
linda walker
Love this show in general, BUT the Grandma suicide episode was BRILLIANT!!, never thought I would be so impressed/amused/touched by the subject matter.
Great Show
Jun 17, 2017   |  Reply
Linda Donovan
Of course, I couldn't agree more, Linda. Unlike any show I've seen on the subject. Original and, yes, brilliant. I hope the show itself gets more attention!
Jun 17, 2017
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