What Does Jerrod Carmichael Think About His Reality Show?

a man and a woman sitting on a couch
‘Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show’ Episode 8 RecapHBO

Well, we have reached the final episode of Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, and while my feelings about it are as conflicted as ever, I am glad I watched it. Do you know whose feelings about it are not conflicted and who is not glad he watched it? Anonymous, the masked and voice-altered mystery figure who has made cameo appearances throughout these eight episodes and who is probably Bo Burnham. The final episode begins with Carmichael and Anonymous in a screening room watching the painful conversation between Carmichael and his mother, Cynthia, from a couple episodes ago.

“What the fuck is this show?” Anonymous asks. “That’s so upsetting, and you’re so angry at her, and for good reason.”

Carmichael answers, “I wish I could express to her how this makes me feel,” which when you get down to it is the point of having done this show in the first place. I asked him as much when we spoke a couple months ago: What is the best-case scenario of involving your parents in a reality show about your early life as an out-of-the-closet gay man? “That my mom would say, ‘Oh, I see where this has hurt you, and I see you,’ ” he said. “She still sees the Christ-like ideal of a son that she has in her head, but to see me for who I am would be great.”

Episode 8 of Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show is called “Cynthia in NY,” and it’s all about her visiting him in New York for the first time, and though she still may not come out of it seeing him fully, there are reasons to keep hoping. I just don’t know if there are reasons to keep filming.

a person and a boy sitting on a couch with a cat
Jerrod Carmichael and his mom, Cynthia, pray together in a scene from episode 8. HBO

When they meet at the airport, both are genuinely overjoyed to see each other. You can see the bond that exists between them, even if you know there are rough waters ahead. She sees his apartment—and correctly points out that he is “living large”—and they go off to dinner with Carmichael’s boyfriend, Michael. Carmichael makes almost too big a deal out of not knowing which side to sit on: Michael’s or Mom’s? “I’ve never had a boyfriend at dinner,” he explains, ultimately going with Mom. It is already very awkward, and it’s hard to know how much of it is the sound of passing motorcycles, how much of it is the cameras, and how much of it is just the Weight of Things Unsaid.

Carmichael has found a gay-affirming Baptist church, one that, he tells a crowd, has a top-notch choir. “Who knew, just let people be gay and your choir is amazing.” The service is electrifying, the onstage baptisms are stage-managed gorgeously, and everyone is into it— particularly Carmichael, who may have smoked a joint before all of this.

After the service, Carmichael and Cynthia have a talk with the pastor, whom Carmichael seems to want to use as a mediator. The pastor says he is not in the business of saying who goes to hell and who doesn’t, since that’s God’s job. Cynthia says, “I never said you were going to hell; what I said was that I pray that your soul is saved,” which feels like splitting hairs to me. “What I read is that God says he doesn’t condone man and man and woman and woman,” she adds.

The pastor is quick to respond that that’s not actually in the Bible. “Just say, ‘I don’t approve’; don’t put that on the word,” he says.

The pastor is right, of course, but it does not matter. On my first watch of this episode, I jotted down, in reference to his mom, “It goes in one ear and out the other.” After rewatching it, I must correct myself, because it does not seem to even go in that first ear. I said this to Carmichael, and he agreed: “No, it’s like it’s rebuked. It’s rebuked at the statement.” Heartbreaking, especially when we’re treated to more flashbacks of Carmichael’s youth.

The two of them then go to Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers for some of the most tense moments of bowling you’re likely to see this year. Carmichael keeps trying to have The Talk; Cynthia keeps rebuking. “There’s a theory that gay men get this way because we have such a strong connection with our mothers,” he tells her. She rejects it, and he counters, “I love you so much I would suck another man’s dick.” You won’t believe this, reader, but it’s true: This does not help at all. “I really want to protect her and also low-key destroy her,” he tells an audience. “She’s either my goddess mother or my final boss.”

So what we see here is an illustration of a fundamental disagreement between generations, and also sometimes between very religious people and not very religious people: One side believes that some people are born gay and that’s the way it is, and the other side believes that’s a capitulation to temptation and a choice to live in sin and that you can either pray it away or suppress it completely. That latter one seems implausible, but people believe that shit! “The teachings of her church allow her to believe such a thing,” Michael tells Carmichael, “so we just keep chipping away at that.”

And then comes the return of Jess, my favorite person on this show by a wide margin. She and Cynthia have a picnic lunch, and she asks how everything is going. Cynthia says she likes New York. “No, I’m talking about your son and his boyfriend, mama,” Jess says, knocking down the wall of bullshit with a smile.

“I have no problem being around my son and his friend, as I will call him,” Cynthia says, and when Jess asks whether “boyfriend” is a word she’s able to say, she continues: “It’s not hard at all for me to say ‘boyfriend’; it’s just my choice.” Cynthia goes on to say she feels that her son is being hard on her for being Christian, and Jess dispenses with that, too: “I don’t think anyone’s being hard on you. I think they’re calling you to do better.” Ouch! And thank you. Jess is my personal Best New Artist of 2024.

jerrod carmichael and his friend from home

Cynthia agrees to one single therapy session, of a duration of no more than ninety minutes, which of course won’t be enough, but I would also like to suggest that every single human being can benefit from one single ninety-minute therapy session. Cynthia tells the therapist that she would like for Carmichael not to be gay, which I hope she said before anyone hit start on the ninety-minute timer, because we’ve been knowing that shit. She brings God into it immediately, and the therapist asks whether she’s using God as an excuse not to think for herself. Cynthia asks why anyone cares what she thinks, and the therapist says, “Well, you are his mother.” Again, this statement maybe does not fully enter the one ear.

Back at the apartment, Carmichael asks how, specifically and practically, he would even change from being gay, and she answers, “Jesus.” He agrees to pray with her, and here’s how the prayer goes: “Dear Lord, we come to you this afternoon to thank you. My prayer is that you will take the desire from my son to be with a male, and that he will be willing to open his heart to what you are trying to say.”

I mean, listen, she believes it. I don’t, and Carmichael doesn’t, but this shit is ingrained, and if you want further proof of how ingrained it is, consider this: I haven’t been a practicing Catholic in probably twenty-five years, but I am still capitalizing God and Lord because it feels wrong not to. On some level, if we’re exposed to this early in our lives, it gets its hooks into us.

a man sitting at a table with a plate of food and drinks
Jerrod Carmichael and his mom, Cynthia, inside his New York apartment in a scene from episode 8. HBO

I asked Carmichael how he feels about his mother and her religion after having filmed this scene, and he said he still resents her attachment to it over him. “The idea that she and God are so tight that they had a conversation about who I am, and at some point I’ll come around to where she and God are,” he said. “I want her to acknowledge how condescending that is, and how horrible it would feel if her parents treated her like that, how much that would prey on her self-image. It would be nice to be seen and acknowledged in that way.”

Back in the screening room, Anonymous tells Carmichael to feel his hands. They’re sweaty. “This is my problem with the show,” Anonymous says, “which is why I wear this fucking mask and why I fundamentally want no part of it: You treat the camera like it’s God, like Look and see the truth, find the truth. But the God on the other end of the screen is the fucking public. This is going to be viewed by the giant revolting mass of people that is argumentative and insane and a scary collective for the judgment of the most precious things in your life. All of this is on a conveyor belt into hell, which is the release.” He ends with a hope that maybe this show will just be a blip on the cultural radar. “Fingers crossed everyone’s just watching TikTok and nobody gives a fuck anymore,” he laughs. “Maybe the ratings will just be absolute shit.”

jerrod carmichael

I have no idea what the ratings have been for this show. I know it was nominated for a Gotham TV Award recently. I know people have been reading these recaps. I know the show lit up Twitter every week, and I know clips got taken out of context and headlines about the show were misleading and then Twitter reacted to those. I know Carmichael’s quote about Dave Chappelle also got taken out of context and aggregated by a million news sites, and he had to go on The Breakfast Club with Charlemagne tha God and apologize. I know the show got people talking. I don’t know if the show got enough people talking, and I don’t know if the show got the right people talking. I asked him what he really wanted from it, and he said, “I keep showing my mother herself, and yeah, I don’t know. I’m still a kid just crying for attention. I’m just begging for attention.” Well, he got it, but I don’t know whether, now that it’s all out in the world, it has helped him or his family.

But at the end, there is a note of hope. Over the credits, there is footage of another visit to North Carolina for Carmichael and Michael. It’s a happier visit this time; the nieces are ecstatic, there are smiles all around, and crucially, there is food. But the final image of this whole show is truly beautiful: silent footage of Michael and Cynthia talking and laughing as they do the dishes. They’re not mic’d up, the camera keeps a respectful distance, and they’re just getting through it.

a man sitting at a desk
“I keep showing my mother herself, and yeah, I donHBO

The quiet, patient work of loving your family is a lot like the quiet, patient work of doing the dishes. It can be tedious, and it takes time, and it’s never really done: You get through one meal’s worth, and sure enough, before too long there’s another sinkful you have to get to. But you do it. You do it because it’s the healthy thing, and the respectful thing. It builds character. And sometimes it can even be a pleasure.

The quiet, patient work of loving your family is also like the quiet, patient work of doing the dishes in another, perhaps more important way that I think just about everyone agrees with: Please, please do not film me doing it.

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