'Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show' Review: Provocative HBO Docuseries

One of the most intriguing aspects of Jerrod Carmichael‘s Emmy-winning Rothaniel was the way it erased the already blurry line between comedy special and therapy session.

Seated in an uncomfortable-looking chair in the glare of a harsh spotlight that left the rest of the intimate venue entirely in the dark, Carmichael explored family trauma and his sexuality in a soft-spoken, introspective way that gave the impression of spontaneous self-discovery, occasionally assisted by responses from the unseen audience. What made the special so spectacular was how it used Carmichael’s inherent likability to pull viewers into his life — or at least into the version of his life that he felt prepared to confront at that moment.

Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show

The Bottom Line

Uneasily real, uneasily artificial, uneasily hard to shake.

Airdate: 11 p.m. Friday, March 29 (HBO)
Star: Jerrod Carmichael
Creators: Jerrod Carmichael, Ari Katcher, Eli Despres

HBO’s Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, created by Carmichael, Eli Despres and director Ari Katcher, isn’t precisely a sequel to Rothaniel, but it’s an extension of its genre-blurring tone and therapeutic approach. With eight half-hour episodes, Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show is a more expansive and confrontational thing, in which that inherent Carmichael likability is pushed into a much less comfortable place. It may not provoke quite as much self-examination from the viewer as it’s intended to provoke from Carmichael, but the show, its formal inventiveness, its choices and its agendas are hard to shake.

If the assumption going into a show like this — the title refers to Carmichael’s reality, not to “reality show” as a genre — is that the creator-star will use the language of unscripted TV to forge a positive self-promotional platform that viewers will accept as “truth,” Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show borders on cautionary exposé instead of enticing commercial. Time after time, Carmichael throws himself under the meticulously filmed bus, building sympathy for everybody else in his life by yanking sympathy away from himself.

I imagine that the most common question for Carmichael in the editing room was, “Are you SURE you want to leave this in?” But in subjecting himself to a warts-and-all treatment that’s almost all warts, Carmichael is attempting something that’s possibly more fascinating than Rothaniel — a roller coaster of identification and rejection that’s sure to alienate some viewers, leaving the rest to contemplate a frequently funny, just as frequently uneasy intersection of truth and artifice.

Carmichael describes the process here as an attempt at a self-Truman Show, forcing himself to tell the truth by surrounding himself with cameras.

“It feels really dumb to lie. I keep saying I wanna live more truthfully,” Carmichael claims.

But as a friend who insists on wearing a mask and being referred to as “Anonymous” argues, “It’s exhibitionist. There’s public and private and then there’s masturbatorally public. There’s public which is like unnecessarily shooting a camera up your fucking asshole and broadcasting it for the world.”

They’re both right.

Over the eight episodes, Carmichael follows up on threads from Rothaniel. At the center is an examination of his dating life, which involves the long-time friend who largely ghosted him after he expressed a desire to take their relationship to the next level, plus a new long-distance boyfriend, all complicated by Carmichael’s pathological refusal to remain faithful to anybody, even as the camera follows him on his infidelities.

Then there’s Carmichael’s examination of his status as a friend, including his efforts to push a stand-up buddy to do more confessional material, his initially generous efforts to host a friend who comes to New York with acting dreams and a mortifying incident in which he misses a wedding at which he was supposed to be the best man.

Finally, there’s Carmichael’s position as a son, as he tries to get his ultra-religious mother to accept his sexuality and attempts to confront his father about the infidelities that were mentioned in Rothaniel and clearly seeded his philandering present.

If there’s any question that audiences will ask as frequently as the aforementioned “Why would Jerrod leave some of this stuff in?” it’s probably the far simpler and more all-purpose, “REALLY?!?” As in, “Did he really miss a friend’s wedding to get a hot dog?” “Is he really going on Grindr immediately after an emotional confession with his boyfriend about cheating?” “Are his Grindr dates really signing the waiver to allow a camera crew to film both immediately before and after sex?” “Are his parents really just accepting having these fraught family scenes play out for a full crew and later for America?”

Viewers, in choosing to watch and continuing to watch the show, are internally signing a more existential waiver of sorts — either to accept that everything in the series is real or, as a very plausible alternative, to believe that nothing in the show is real, that it’s all “just” entertainment.

The unrelenting candor is the whole project, as is exposing the artificiality of “reality” as a genre that viewers accept as a delivery mechanism for truth. Your typical documentary achieves a look and feel that viewers accept as “real” by virtue of minimizing the size of the crew to the barest of bones. Part of why somebody like Matthew Heineman (American Symphony) gets the access he does is that he’s often his own cinematographer and crew.

Here, with Katcher directing, Carmichael is being followed by a team with multiple cameras and multiple set-ups, all acknowledged throughout. We see the cameraman standing between Carmichael and his dad pointing his camera at one and then the other and back again after Carmichael goes through a familiar gay taxonomy — twinks, bears, otters, the like — exclusively to make his father squirm. Following a tense, but perfectly lit dinner, one participant steps out to the balcony and realizes the windows have been blacked out for the production.

Intercut throughout are Carmichael’s on-stage musings on the evolving state of his life. If you’re keeping score, it’s an ouroboros in which life has fueled his stand-up act and his stand-up act has inspired a reality series that is now fueling his standup. Or something like that. And yes, late in the show there are scenes in which Carmichael and Anonymous watch and critique scenes from Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show.

Does the exposing of the genre’s mechanics and artifice make Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show one of the genre’s most transparent and therefore honest entries? Or just the first one to figure out how to use a new language of “truth” as a way to cover for its own contrivances? Yes.

If you’re watching the show at all, it’s probably because you like the version of Jerrod Carmichael projected in his past stand-up specials, on NBC’s The Carmichael Show and in various films. It’s hard, then, to watch somebody you like and somebody whom you’ve been trained to like in roles that mirror “himself” being this narcissistic and, occasionally, this cruel. But making himself look ugly at times has the oddest of effects, forcing us to empathize with family members who were, in past Carmichael recountings of these stories, presented as the villains, or at least as intolerant or judgmental. Carmichael’s parents are homophobic, but they’re being ambushed and possibly humiliated to expose their homophobia, which adjusts their role into the “victim” space. It’s a devious and calculated thought experiment where you’re forced to go, “They’re in the wrong, but he’s in the wrong and maybe that doesn’t make them in the right, but… it sure does… something.”

Walter Scott wrote, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,” but Jerrod Carmichael and company are here laying out proof that when we practice to tell the truth, the web we weave can be far more tangled.

It’s hard to call Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show a “fun” or “conventionally enjoyable” show to watch, but I laughed and covered my eyes in mortification in equal measure — and since I finished my screeners, I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

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