Jerrod Carmichael’s ‘Reality Show’ Is Extraordinary

The genius comedian’s new reality show explores his gay identity, his relationship with his boyfriend, his fame, and what the idea of a reality show even is at this point.Updated Mar. 26, 2024 12:02AM EDT / Published Mar. 26, 2024 12:01AM EDT MaxIn 2024, Jerrod Carmichael is perhaps as well known for his confessions as for his comedy. The writer, director, actor

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The genius comedian’s new reality show explores his gay identity, his relationship with his boyfriend, his fame, and what the idea of a reality show even is at this point.

Allegra Frank

Jerrod Carmichael walks into a hotel shirtless in a still from ‘Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show’

Max

In 2024, Jerrod Carmichael is perhaps as well known for his confessions as for his comedy. The writer, director, actor, and stand-up—or, more accurately, sit-down—comedian has reinvented his career in recent years from casually boundary-pushing comic and sitcom star to the award-winning star of one of the most talked-about comedy specials in recent years. 2022’s Rothaniel won widespread acclaim for Carmichael’s astounding vulnerability, as he wrestled with the nature of secrets before revealing one of his own: that he’s gay, much to his family’s dismay. (He also admitted that his first name is actually Rothaniel, the special’s namesake.) Since then, his star has exploded, taking his career into new, highly visible directions; he’s hosted the Golden Globes, guest-hosted Saturday Night Live, and even appeared in the Oscar-winning Poor Things, for good measure.

But with increased visibility and self-reckoning came an increased dependence on the camera for self-expression, as Carmichael himself explores in HBO’s Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, premiering March 29. The half-hour series—which errs more toward documentary than pure reality show—captures the comedian’s effort to poke veins adjacent to the one he burst open in Rothaniel. But Carmichael’s intimacy here is more playful, building a narrative over the course of its eight episodes that requires both performativity and painful honesty. While Reality Show is not quite as revelatory as his career-defining special, it’s a fascinating, affecting, and valuable experiment in how honest one can really be when you’re writing, directing, and filming your own life.

Carmichael—who, prior to Rothaniel, was best known for his revelatory NBC sitcom The Carmichael Show and his conversational, casually provocative stand-up—had an atypical coming out process: He publicly declared that he’s gay in a stand-up special on a major network. Armed with a new feeling of liberation, Carmichael has captured a larger audience’s imagination by allowing us to watch him reinvent himself as an out gay performer in real time.

Reality Show picks up in the wake of Rothaniel’s success, weaving in clips of Carmichael’s introspective stand-up with his post-fame concerns, like finding a date for the 2022 Emmys and using his own success to bolster that of a friend and fellow comedian. But behind the professional scenes, he’s also relearning how to navigate his relationships with both his boyfriend and his parents. While each episode is fairly self-contained, they all fit into an overall theme. This is a show about a man exploring therapy through both literal means—there are several therapy sessions seen throughout the show—and constructed ones, with Carmichael using the artifice of TV to confront himself. (Why does Jerrod always cheat on his loving boyfriend? Well, perhaps a road trip with his soft-spoken, Southern Baptist dad, who was a serial cheater himself, could help him understand why!)

Jerrod Carmichael wears a fur in a still from ‘Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show’

Jerrod Carmichael

Max

The way the show plays with fiction and reality initially feels somewhat contrived, to its own detriment. Perhaps it’s because the production elements are typically played for comedy, in a show that works best in a more dramatic mode. “I keep saying I wanna live more truthfully,” Carmichael says in the series premiere, speaking directly into a webcam, “and I find myself alone a lot, and I can’t tell if it’s because I’m afraid of telling the truth.” Then, an animated Grindr notification pops up, distracting him from his confessional and suggesting the show will be a lot cheekier than it ultimately is.

In a later scene, in which Carmichael sits down with his friend Tyler, the Creator about Tyler’s lacking response to Carmichael admitting his crush on the rapper, Carmichael admits that he’s only doing it on camera because it was the most comfortable, emotionally distant way he could handle such an important convo. But what is a raw, uncomfortable, powerful conversation becomes otherwise when Tyler steps out of the room to take a fart (as one does) and notices that the cameramen were there the whole time.

It’s hard to begrudge Carmichael wanting to make his show funny, of course. But where Reality Show sings is in its less performative moments—the very kind that his “anonymous,” ski mask-wearing (and, if you’ve done your research, very famous) friend warns him can come across as “masturbatory.” Carmichael reckoning with his mother’s unwillingness to accept his sexuality is a beautiful recurring storyline throughout the eight-episode season, one with no easy resolution or obvious villains. The growth we see him experience from the occasionally heavy-handed Episode 1 to the comparatively unvarnished finale feels more genuine and even illicit than moments like Carmichael and his boyfriend in bed, getting intimate in artfully composed scenes where we are made aware the camera is present. Carmichael’s stand-up comedy doesn’t shy away from revealing himself, but there’s a self-consciousness to the comedy in Reality Show that goes away in those heavier, less poised moments.

Jerrod Carmichael sits outside in a still from ‘Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show’

Jerrod Carmichael

Max

Learning about Carmichael in this way feels like a valuable watch, even if his own critics may suggest otherwise. He’s undoubtedly an interesting figure, as much as he’s a great, singular comedian: a gay, Black man from the South, whose cosmopolitan lifestyle is at odds with his conservative upbringing. Watching him reconcile that reality is fascinating, regardless of his level of fame. But that fame also makes the show more unique than just a family drama, especially in episodes in which Carmichael reflects upon how he can use his money to make amends with friends—or to hide himself from his own truth.

To call Carmichael Reality Show a powerful watch makes it sound a lot more haughty and less fun than it actually is; there’s a lot of wit, irony, and jokes to be found here. (And the humor isn’t always intentional; Carmichael’s successfully selling everyone in his life on seeing a therapist is a darkly funny recurring bit, even if it’s in earnest.) But just like with Rothaniel, Carmichael’s latest project nails that tricky, incredibly watchable balance of revealing yourself without giving too much away. There’s nothing else on TV like it.

Allegra Frank

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