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‘The Carmichael Show’ review: New season, new issues

Jerrod Carmichael, left, and Amber Stevens West

Jerrod Carmichael, left, and Amber Stevens West star in "The Carmichael Show." Photo Credit: Chris Haston/NBC / NBC

THE SHOW “The Carmichael Show”

WHEN | WHERE Season 3 premiere Wednesday at 9 p.m. on NBC/4

GRADE B

WHAT IT’S ABOUT In the opener, Jerrod’s (Jerrod Carmichael) brother, Bobby (Lil Rel Howery) is afraid he didn’t get the proper vocal consent from a woman he had sexual relations with the night before. He is concerned: Does that make him a rapist?

The Carmichael family then proceeds to debate what “proper consent” exactly is. As always, “Carmichael” tackles issues episode by episode, with Jerrod’s dad Joe (David Alan Grier) and mother Cynthia (Loretta Devine) taking conservative positions, while Jerrod and live-in girlfriend Maxine (Amber Stevens West) stake out progressive ones. Bobby’s ex, Nekeisha (Tiffany Haddish) doesn’t much care one way or the other.

MY SAY Carmichael taped his last special for HBO at the Masonic Hall on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, which is a curious place for any comedy special. It’s a beautiful space, and also a small, dark, cramped and somber one. But “Jerrod Carmichael: 8” succeeded because Carmichael’s comedy succeeds so well in small, dark, cramped, somber spaces. His comedy is the comedy of discomfort, introspection, puzzlement. The whole point is to challenge his own loosely held, loosely examined assumptions, and then — by association — those loosely held by someone sitting five feet away from him. It can also be intense, intimate, and right in your face.

Now with his show entering its third season on NBC, Carmichael is back on the world’s biggest stage, but those uncomfortable, introspective, puzzled, in-your-face vibes haven’t gone anywhere. Instead, what’s missing is the intimacy — and subtlety.

That’s too bad because those are core Carmichael strengths, just not the core strengths of the commercial network sitcom. “The Carmichael Show” has risen above those constraints before — like last season’s terrific episode on his coming to terms with Bill Cosby’s legacy — but not always, and not always this season either.

The more or less ironclad formula here is debate-by-sitcom, where a position is established, most typically an indefensible one (courtesy of Joe). Then, by process of elimination, and punchline after punchline, each episode works its way toward a conclusion, or truce. Over the first five episodes offered for review, “Carmichael” covers consent and consensual sex; troops and patriotism; voluntary euthanasia; a mall shooting; and same-sex marriages. It’s quite a spread, and also an uneven one.

The opener (“Yes Means Yes”) and the June 21 episode (“Lesbian Wedding”) are the strongest, and not because Jerrod scored the best lines but because Maxine did. “Treating women with respect isn’t some rule I made up,” she quietly explains. The episodes on euthanasia and the mall shooting were the most compelling, and also the bleakest. At the end of one, the entire series seems to crumble under the weight of cosmic indifference.

And this on NBC? Yes, and also this: Carmichael said at the recent press tour that the series will use a specific and highly toxic racial slur exactly six times over the course of this 13-episode run. Like “All in the Family,” which inspired this series, and like that HBO show at the Masonic, “The Carmichael Show” wants to confront those taboos you would rather not. It’s a commendable impulse, sometimes an important one, even a funny one when least expected. It can also induce whiplash.

BOTTOM LINE Uneven, but the core strength remains — a sitcom that embraces the uncomfortable, and sometimes the unmentionable.

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