[Warning: The following story contains content that pertains to rape and sexual assault and can be considered a trigger.]
The Carmichael Show — NBC's topical family comedy from comedian Jerrod Carmichael — returned for Season 3 Wednesday night and wasted no time in getting to the hard subjects, but did the critically acclaimed comedy hit the mark in one of its bravest episodes yet?
The multi-cam sitcom has been applauded for its brave approach to serious topics like gun violence, Donald Trump and Bill Cosby. Season 3 kicked off with a double shot of controversial topics, tackling rape and consent in the season opener, "Yes Means Yes," and going no holds barred on America's sometimes hypocritical enthusiasm for the military in "Support the Troops."
Carmichael brings up a difficult subject and then uses each of the show's well defined characters to provide a different point of view, allowing each viewer to find someone to agree with no matter what the issue is. That's how "Support the Troops" plays out, but it didn't go as smoothly for the sitcom's rape episode.
"Yes Means Yes" delves into the complicated nature of consent and what constitutes sexual assault in 2017. Maxine (Ashley Stevens West) defends the perspective that a verbal yes is needed from a woman before every step of intercourse. Jerrod (Jerrod Carmichael) and the rest of his family argue that's too confusing and unrealistic to expect from every sexual encounter. Jerrod even goes as far to say that a rape accusation for a man can be as damaging as actual rape is for an assault victim. The situation only gets more complicated as Bobby (Lil Rel Howry) grapples with whether he asked his date from the previous night for consent — and if she didn't give it, did he rape her?
"Yes Means Yes" doesn't fail in the way you'd expect. It continues the Carmichael tradition of being able to infuse humor into difficult and uncomfortable topics. The episode is able to make jokes without belittling sexual assault victims. There are definitely triggers for anyone who has experienced rape, but none of the jokes are distasteful. It doesn't feel wrong to laugh at the punchlines. But it wasn't without some problems. The Carmichael Show didn't take a misstep in content, but in perspective.
Maxine is the only representation of the female point of view in the episode — written by two male staff writers Kevin Barnett and Josh Rabinowitz — and though Jerrod eventually comes around to her side, it's not because he hears what she's saying. It's because he saw Bobby humiliated by the girl he, fortunately, didn't rape, convincing Jerrod that communication is better before sex rather than after. His agreement is about preserving the male ego rather than understanding why it's important to treat his sexual partner with respect and ask for consent.
In the end, Maxine's friend, whose rape story was the catalyst for the entire discussion, wasn't granted the trust so many rape victims are denied. Only Bobby seemed to grasp the importance of what Maxine was saying about consent and that was for his own self-preservation. It was the male interpretation of assault and the complications a rape accusation causes for men that carried most of the weight in the episode, and since that's how most real-life rape cases are perceived, The Carmichael Show missed the opportunity to educate about rape culture and the importance of getting that "yes."
In "Support the Troops," Jerrod ends up being "right" at the end of the episode and Joe (David Alan Grier) is "wrong," but you don't feel less supportive of the armed forces who protect our American freedoms. No perspective outweighed the other. The real point is revealed not to be whether we should support the troops or not, but how we should be more consistent in how we support them instead of making empty gestures we never expect to follow through on.
Season 3's bold opening cements that The Carmichael Show isn't afraid to go there and it still does it better than most any show out there. Both episodes took brave stances, but not every outing at bat can be a home run. "Support the Troops" stuck the landing, but "Yes Means Yes" missed the point of the conversation. Still, we give The Carmichael Show props for even trying to have the conversation in the first place.
The Carmichael Show continues Wednesdays at 9/8c on NBC.