Anyone who knows me, or has access to my Netflix history, knows that I love sitcoms. The warmth and enduring appeal of the format has made it a TV staple, and regular resident of my Netflix queue, practically since both technologies were invented. While the format has evolved slightly over time, unlike a lot of pop culture, the sitcom is a genre heavily resistant to change, and that’s not an accident.
Ideally, when someone turns on a traditional sitcom, it should feel like they are going home. The characters on screen should feel like family to viewers, and that connection and relationship between the characters on the screen and the people at home will keep audiences coming back week after week. That formula, one of the most lucrative in TV history, isn’t very conducive to change.
Why not? Well, the heart any sitcom’s appeal is familiarity. Audiences, for the most part, want to know what to expect when they turn on a show. If they don’t, you lose the connection that brings people back week after week. At the same time, most people don’t like watching a show that’s a carbon copy of something they’ve already seen before. So, the underlying question is, how do you create a show unique enough to stand on its own but familiar enough to not scare away audiences?
For new shows, this balancing act is tricky to say the least. Tens of series fail every year at striking this balance. Two that haven’t though are a pair of NBC comedies: Superstore and The Carmichael Show. These young shows navigate the line between innovation and familiarity outstandingly well, and have become two of my favorite TV comedies in the process.
Superstore, on the surface, is a traditional workplace comedy. The show centers on a large retail department store (Think: Wal-Mart) called Cloud 9 and the down-on-their-luck employees inside it. The show’s characters play initially as copies of their Office and Parks and Recreation counterparts (Ben Feldman’s Jonah is a Jim-type, assistant manager Dina plays as a female Dwight Schrute, while Amy is a bit of an Ann Perkins/Pam Beasley Mash-up). The show follows the exploits of these goofballs as they struggle to entertain and distract themselves from their boring day-jobs. Sound familiar? Well, It’s supposed to, more on that in a bit though.
The Carmichael Show has a similarly stereotypical set up. The Carmichaels, an middle to upper class black family from North Carolina, are pretty standard sitcom fare. Jerrod, our protagonist, is the successful, level-headed twenty-something son. His Dad, always the contrarian, hasn’t met an argument he didn’t like, while his mother will never resist an opportunity to sing the gospel of Christianity. His brother, recently divorced and the family mess-up, works as a security guard at a local school, while Jerrod’s girlfriend is an outsider who just wants to be a part of the group and win the affection of her boyfriend’s parents, but not at the expense of her principles. Sounds familiar? Again, It’s supposed to.
See, The Carmichael Show and Superstore aren’t reinventing the sitcom wheel, but rather just using it as tool to navigate to uncharted comedic waters.
Look, I know that was a bit of a stretch, so don’t worry if you didn’t follow that wheel comparison. I’ll explain what I mean, and try to make the metaphors more concise from here on out. Let’s start with the Carmichaels.
The Carmichael Show’s set up is so cliched and stereotypical, it takes less than five minutes for audiences to find their footing and feel comfortable. That’s when The Carmichael Show starts to set itself apart from the competition. The show, surface level, might feel like a run-of-the-mill family sitcom, but in actuality, The Carmichael Show uses its format as a vehicle for discussion and debate. The first season contains just six episodes, each of which centered on the family’s different takes on hot button issues, from gun control to school prayer. These issues, almost uniformly divisive, are things that don’t normally get brought up on tradition sitcoms, and when they do, it’s usually considered a “Very Special Episode.” The Carmichael Show uses its format to address these issues head on, and more importantly, bring the laughs.
Superstore’s originality is less overt, but still similarly impressive. Unlike The Carmichael Show, Superstore is still very much a traditional workplace sitcom. However, Superstore quickly found a unique voice by leaning on its setting to create something original.
Unlike a lot of workplace comedies, Superstore’s setting is looked at with almost uniform animosity by the show’s characters. Working as a salesman at a department store was never any of these character’s dream job. In fact, most of them are pretty upfront about being there to just collect a paycheck and leave as soon as possible. The show helps the viewer empathize by keeping its characters inside the store throughout each episode, trapping both the characters and the audience inside the strange world of Cloud 9 every episode.
Confining the characters inside this world has forced Superstore to find ways to make the show funny and interesting despite only taking place in one location. One of my favorite ways the show accomplishes this is through an admirable commitment to physical comedy. In an age where shows like New Girl, or The Grinder, or even The Carmichael Show rely almost completely on dialogue to deliver jokes, Superstore has a unique penchant for jokes that don’t come from spoken words, instead going for bigger, more complex physical bits.. Each episode features at least one or two scenes that use the department store setting as a backdrop for some of the best physical comedy on TV.
Even better than that though, are Superstore’s scene transitions. During an average sitcom, in between different scenes are placeholder transitions, sometimes known as interstitials, that give an audience a break in between each scene. Most of the time, these consist of boring footage of the outside of an apartment building or office space to show the audience the setting has changed. Because Superstore never really leaves Cloud 9, the show doesn’t need to tell the audience the location has changed, thus creating an opportunity for the show to set itself apart from the competition and do something new. An opportunity the show knocked right out of the park. Usually no longer than a couple of seconds, these little one-off bits are absolute gems that set Superstore apart. When New Girl is showing the same shot of the apartment building, or Modern Family is displaying that same footage of the house, Superstore is making the audience laugh in new ways.
In the end, that’s what sets both Superstore and The Carmichael Show apart from the TV comedy pack. These shows consistently find new ways to make people laugh, within the constraints of an old-fashioned, cliche-riddled format. To put it simply, they make viewers laugh in ways they haven’t before, and that’s part of what makes them so exciting. The originality doesn’t end with the jokes though, these shows are telling stories about, and broadcasting the opinions of, people who aren’t typically given the chance to shine on TV sitcoms.
The Carmichael Show features an all-black cast throughout its premiere season. Though producers swear this wasn’t intentional, it ends up being a very powerful message on diversity within cultures. The Carmichael Show’s ability to provide a forum for discussion on societal issues, allows for opposing viewpoints and differing opinions among the show’s core cast. In an era when most sitcoms have typically one or two people who represent any particular minority, The Carmichael Show depicts exclusively minority characters disagreeing and discussing major societal issues. These are discussions that I know for a fact are happening at dinner tables around the country, no matter the ethnicity of those seated. As a discussion show, or a news panel show, or even as a straight up late night talk show, it’s hard to say if viewers would accept hearing new and divisive opinions at once. But, within the familiar confines of the multi-camera sitcom, The Carmichael Show is exposing viewers to new points of view
Superstore does the same thing, but again, is a little less overt. Following in the tradition of Brooklyn Nine Nine, the show has an insanely diverse cast that it rarely ever calls attention to. Of Superstore’s seven main cast members, only three are white. Like The Carmichael Show, Superstore isn’t trying to call attention to its diversity, instead just trying to depict the world they are telling stories about accurately. Intentional or not, the different viewpoints allows from comedy not normally found on these types of shows, and allows for this scene to play out much differently than it would on The Office, for example.
Neither Superstore nor The Carmichael Show is perfect, but both have committed to doing something new, and that’s what makes the shows so exciting to me as a viewer and a passionate lover of sitcoms.
The sitcom is never going to go away. As long as there is TV, there will probably be sitcoms, or at least I hope there will be. But in order to survive, the genre has to evolve and change over time to avoid getting stale. Both Superstore and The Carmichael Show have the potential provide that change and usher in a new era of sitcom storytelling. One that is diverse in its voices, one that finds comedy in new places, and, most importantly, one that is just plain funny.
The debut seasons of both Superstore and The Carmichael Show are availible in full on Hulu and NBC.com
Season 2 Of The Carmichael Show Premieres March 13 on NBC.
Superstore was renewed for a Second Season last week.