Last week, NBC made the decision to pull an episode of The Carmichael Show, titled “Shoot-Up-Able,” from its schedule. The episode finds its lead character, Jerrod, reeling after surviving a mass shooting. The network felt that airing the episode the same night as a gunman opened fire at a congressional softball practice in Virginia would be insensitive.
The network finally aired the episode Wednesday night, and, wow, were they wrong to pull it in the first place.
The episode starts with Jerrod, played Seinfeld-style by series co-creator and star Jerrod Carmichael, arriving home after just surviving a mass shooting at a mall.
(Proving just how timely the show tends to be, Jerrod’s girlfriend, Maxine, is singing “Waving Through the Window” from Dear Evan Hansen when Jerrod interrupts her to tell her about the mass shooting. The acclaimed Broadway show won the best new musical Tony Award the same week “Shoot-Up-Able” would have aired.)
At first, he tries to dismiss the entire experience as something that just happens when you live somewhere that is “shoot-up-able,” and refuses to engage in a serious conversation about it. Family members who heard about the shooting are in histrionics over the thought that he could have been a victim. But Jerrod, wearing an armor of recent trauma, mocks it all as overreaction.
Stereotypes about mass shooters and domestic terrorists follow. Jabs at the National Rifle Association, too. Jerrod takes the piss out of people’s tendencies to make others’ near-death experiences all about themselves. “I know being a victim is real sexy right now…” Jerrod gripes, explaining that he doesn’t want his identity defined by this.
The show is hysterical, like a modern-day All in the Family. Carmichael and especially Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier as his parents make certain of that.
But as the episode evolves and breaks through the wall Jerrod puts up, he grapples with the label “victim” and “survivor,” and the impact of what he witnessed. As Jerrod sobers up to the reality of what just happened, so does the show. It’s incredibly poignant, and, even through the prism of a laugh-tracked multicam sitcom, maybe one of the most important episodes about processing a mass shooting TV has produced.
Because of that, Carmichael wasn’t happy that NBC pulled the episode last week, appearing on Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show that night to talk about it.
“I thought that tonight’s episode would have an opportunity to talk about these tragedies in a meaningful way,” he said. “It really lends itself to conversation. When things like this happen, and someone wants to talk about in an outlet that’s not the news, people will say ‘too soon.’ But when is it not too soon? These things happen constantly.”
More, airing it right after the congressional shooting would have gotten the episode the attention it deserved—and, more importantly, that audiences deserved: “We handled the episode with as much love and integrity as we possibly could. But to pull that is criminal. It seems to do a disservice to the viewers. It does a disservice to all of us.”
The Carmichael Show won critical respect after its quiet NBC debut for how vibrantly and urgently it carries on “the Norman Lear tradition,” stoking cultural debate, provoking us to confront our own biases and judgments, and proving that pop culture can be responsible for sociopolitical change.
The best Carmichael Show episodes have tackled things that we’re all talking about, but that networks and creators wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole: Bill Cosby’s legacy, family members voting for Trump, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. More importantly, the episodes discuss these issues from the very specific point of view of a black family in Charlotte, North Carolina, and, through that specific lens, becomes universally resonant and profound.
That his sitcom has retained this much integrity over three seasons is owed to Carmichael’s fierce protectiveness. He butted heads with NBC over a trailer that falsely represented his show, again when the network wanted to shortchange his episode order for Season Two, and again when the decision was being made to pull “Shoot-Up-Able” from the air after a spirited—and, he told IndieWire, productive—back and forth.
“This season has been a bit more-than-ever-before timely,” he told the site, referring to both the mass-shooting episode and an episode about use of the “N-word” that aired soon after Bill Maher’s gaffe. “But I think it’s just an example of how much these things really come up.”
And while he appreciates the reasons to be cautious about airing an episode discussing the trauma of a mass shooting so immediately after the shooting in Virginia, he stands by the argument that airing the episode could have been helpful.
“The worst thing possible is that someone related to the events is watching television and sees something that they don’t want to see at that moment,” he said. “But I do think that we handled [the subject of mass shootings] so delicately and so honestly that I think it would have been a relief.”
He is right.
It is common and, arguably, necessary for networks to postpone or cancel airings of TV episodes that depict mass shootings in reaction to real-world tragedies that render the often graphic depiction of gun violence and death too unsettling, distasteful, and disrespectful to victims and a culture still reeling.
Last year, USA pushed back the premiere of its drama series Shooter, which starred Ryan Phillippe as an expert marksman, a full five months after a sniper attack in Dallas left five police officers dead.
In 2015, the hotly anticipated Season One finale of Mr. Robot was moved a week out of respect for victims of the horrifying on-camera shooting of a news reporter and cameraman, as the episode featured a graphic scene similar in nature to the murders.
A 2013 episode of Hannibal that guest starred Molly Shannon as a character who brainwashed kids into murdering other children was shelved after the Boston Marathon bombing and the school shooting in Sandy Hook, and eventually only posted online.
These are just recent examples of gun violence and mass murders necessitating reactive postponements following real-world events. Myriad news events, including tornadoes, have led shows including Family Guy, Mike and Molly, and The Simpsons to pull or delay episodes.
But the fact is that episodes depicting massacres, school shootings, mass shootings, graphic gun violence, and realistic gun violence are one of the most prevalent stunts in pop culture.
There seems to be a fascination among TV creatives with exploring the trauma of gun violence, with shootings being depicted on a spectrum of detailed and disturbing graphicness on series as far-ranging as American Horror Story, One Tree Hill, The OA, Haven, Criminal Minds, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Numb3rs, and even Glee.
Sometimes the shootings are dealt with sensitively. Sometimes they’re a ratings-grab.
It’s perhaps not hard to imagine why there’s an eagerness to script them into these TV shows. As we’ve witnessed too often, few things are as dramatic and traumatic as mass shootings, theoretically making for rich character exploration and providing obvious built-in suspense and tension—and sure, in the worst of them, gross exploitation of tragedy.
It’s also easy to understand the idea of “too soon” when a TV show can too closely resemble a day’s harrowing newsreel. But as mass shootings become more and more prevalent—there have been over 150 thus far in 2017, according to the Gun Violence Archive—the question shouldn’t be whether airing them too close to an actual tragedy is triggering. Rather, it should be whether the sheer number of fictionalized shootings may be irresponsibly fetishizing gun violence for entertainment.
We need pop culture to reflect reality in order to process it, filter it, and, in some cases, further it. But when are these episodes starting conversations, and when are they just masking Hollywood’s obsession with gun porn?
Optimistically, these episodes, graphic and realistic as they may be, are necessary to stoke public discourse about gun violence by confronting us with the brutal, unflinching fear, death, and injustice of these events. Which is precisely why it would have been powerful for NBC to air “Shoot-Up-Able” when it was originally scheduled to air.
The episode doesn’t depict gun violence. It depicts the aftermath, something we so rarely see explored, given the sheer number of times we’re forced to watch beloved characters bleed to death from gunshot wounds.
The episode is cathartic, and the rare example of a TV series that moves the conversation about mass shootings and its toll on survivors and our culture forward.
Now that the episode has aired, it’s clear that “Shoot-Up-Able” wasn’t “too soon,” or “ill-timed,” or some other label used to defend a decision made out of fear of being controversial. In fact, “Shoot-Up-Able” wasn’t controversial at all but, for the first time, a TV episode about a school shooting that was necessary.