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'The Carmichael Show' balances pointed topicality with humor

'The Carmichael Show' balances pointed topicality with humor
Jerrod Carmichael as Jerrod, Amber West as Maxine, David Alan Grier as Joe Carmichael, Loretta Devine as Cynthia Carmichael. (NBC / Chris Haston)

Jerrod Carmichael, a highly talented, laconically provocative, relatively young stand-up comic, has a sitcom debuting Wednesday on NBC, "The Carmichael Show." And he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page yet.

Created by Carmichael and Nicholas Stoller (director of the film "Neighbors," in which Carmichael appears, and writer-director of "The Five-Year Engagement"), it moves into the space vacated by Craig Robinson's "Mr. Robinson." The two shows — each with an African American lead, it is still worth pointing out — were originally slated to run side by side for six weeks but were rescheduled to run consecutively for three weeks each, two episodes at a time.

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I have no idea whether this decision amounts to an act of faith or a lack of faith, but the advantage for Carmichael is that the second episode is very much different from the (weaker, but better than average) pilot and you won't have to wait seven days to see what he is really after here.

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The structure is formulaic — classic, if you prefer. Multi-camera comedy. Live audience. A young couple, Jerrod Carmichael, played by Jerrod Carmichael, and his newly cohabiting girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens). His wackily dramatic parents, played by David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine. His even wackier brother Bobby (Lil Rel Howery) and Bobby's very present ex-wife, Nekeisha (Tiffany Haddish). They drive each other crazy! And they love each other too.

If you know Carmichael's solo work — captured in his Spike Lee-directed HBO special last year, "Love at the Store" — you would expect something more from him than a mere family comedy, and you get it. (Some lines have been lifted straight from that routine — bits about how you can judge a neighborhood by the quality of the litter or being thrown to the ground by the police because he "fit a description.")

Although the series is not as philosophically unsettling or politically unpredictable as his stage comedy, which gambols in the depths of human self-deception, it is unusually topical and thematically pointed for a people-on-a-couch comedy in the year 2015: The second episode begins with Bobby entering stage left to announce that the police have shot an unarmed teenager. (Carmichael has cited Norman Lear as an influence on "The Carmichael Show," and like a Lear show, this one can get loud.)

The star is as good as he needs to be, given the excellent company. Smartly, the heavy lifting has been turned over to the seasoned professionals: Carmichael may be the man in the middle, but for much of the time this might as well be called "The Devine and Grier Show." They are unfailingly funny, whatever they are asked to say.

Admittedly, it's hard for me to be impartial about anything involving Devine, whom I will turn up for anywhere. Lines a lesser player would make outrageous, with a capital O and an exclamation point at the end, she makes human and delightful and musical. She's a flute with the body of a French horn.

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'The Carmichael Show'

Where: NBC

When: 9 and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-PG-D (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)

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