Ah, summer, that sweet, sweet season of sun, waves, cocktails by the beach, and sitcom premieres dedicated to discourse on the slippery definition of sexual assault.
So it goes on NBC’s The Carmichael Show, which over two seasons and counting has made a point of taking on controversial and even painful topics — including gun rights, abortion and Bill Cosby — and addressing them with nuance, humor and plenty of warmth between the members of its outspoken black family living in North Carolina. Its season three premiere on May 31 will continue the trend with an episode-long riff on rape that finds brother Bobby wondering if he committed it during the previous night’s hook-up. It’s a fine line for a comedy to walk between laughing and cringing, but for David Alan Grier, who plays Carmichael patriarch Joe, “that’s how life is. There are so many times when you are in deep pain and you crack inopportune jokes. As an actor and a communicator, I like those moments.”
A former star on the groundbreaking sketch show In Living Color, Grier finds himself, 25 years later, on another work of comedy that is courting controversy with intelligence and flair. Other issues tackled in The Carmichael Show’s upcoming season include “the rules of being a black person and assisted suicide,” said Jerrod Carmichael, the popular stand-up whose life provides inspiration for the show, and who joined Grier to talk with Brief as part of NBCUniversal’s Summer Press Day at the Beverly Hilton on Monday.
The show’s challenging subject matter, continued Carmichael, not only receives little push-back from the network in this day and age, but is generally embraced. “A lot of the things we do are the reason why a lot of these [NBC] execs got into TV,” he said. “They don’t want to make mindless things, they want to be excited by the content we’re making.”
In a time of turmoil across America, mindfulness over mindlessness seems to have infused NBC’s summer programming in general, whether its honoring the sacrifices of veterans in season four of The Night Shift (premiering June 22) or focusing on game show contestants for The Wall who are making a difference. It’s not heavy stuff per se, but it does reflect a certain collective consciousness: “People are very stressed at the moment,” said The Wall executive producer Maverick Carter in a panel appearance at NBC Summer Press Day. “There are so many things in the world that remind you the world is toxic.”
Carter and NBA Superstar LeBron James are behind SpringHill Entertainment, which developed The Wall in conjunction with Glassman Media. The show enters its season two premiere on June 22, but from the get-go, Carter said, “it was very important for LeBron to find people in their community who have given more than they’ve taken back. It creates such a level of warmth.”
The Wall host Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast has spawned an empire unto its own, and seen him host more than 900 episodes of the massively popular audio program since its inception in 2010. During those seven years, he has spent countless hours “getting to know people and getting them to share and open up,” he added at the Summer Press Day panel. “That skillset really helped on The Wall, where I’m getting to know these people who are really good people and there happens to be a game show happening in the process of that. We really do care about [the contestants] and I want them to win. We spend a lot of time with them and we are connected with who comes on the show. It’s the most humanizing show that I’ve ever seen.”
But NBC’s summer humanizing extends beyond sitcoms and game shows – all the way to the upcoming fantasy-thriller Midnight, Texas, which features, among other things, a witch who talks to her cat and a tattoo artist endowed with massive angel wings.
“The show is a metaphor for things we’re struggling with,” said Midnight executive producer Monica Owusu-Breen. “The characters are struggling with finding their identity in a world that can be hostile to them. It lets us play with real human emotions in a fantastical world. If you were watching some of these stories in our world with regular human folks, it might be too much. But here, you can play with themes that are dark and intense but still keeps it lively and fun.”
The show may be about a band of supernatural curiosities who come together in a small town, but at its core, it’s the tale of “a bunch of misfits,” added Jason Lewis, who plays the tattooing angel-man Joe Strong. “We’re outsiders, but here we’re a family. I think that’s something most people struggle with.”
The theme of keeping the family together under any circumstances is also prevalent in NBC’s other big summer comedy about a black family, Marlon, which premieres August 16. On the opposite end of the energy spectrum from the almost meditative Carmichael Show, Marlon and its irrepressible star Marlon Wayans is broad, brash and goofy as hell. But its premise of a divorced dad who stays close friends with the mother of his children is also, in its way, something of a revelation in terms of the parameters of inclusion on TV.
“It’s more of a family show than it is a show about divorce,” Wayans, who based the series on his own life, told the Summer Press Day crowd. “This is my family for life and it’s all about love… I just wanted to bring that to television.”
Wayans’ words echoed those of his former In Living Color cast mate Grier. The Carmichael Show, like all of NBC’s summer lineup, is ultimately “about love, devotion and respect,” Grier said, speaking earlier in the day. “At the end of it all, we’re there. We’re family and it’s never going to be broke no matter what you say or do.”