“The Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show” review: A daring, soul-baring self-exposé

The "Rothaniel" star lets cameras into all parts of his life in HBO's new docuseries.

Twenty-four years into the genre’s boom, we’re conditioned to view the term “reality show” with skepticism, and often as code for contrived and curated drama. That preconception adds a pleasing layer of irony to The Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show, HBO’s audacious new documentary chronicling the life of the 36-year-old comedian. The eight-episode series offers a fascinatingly frank and, at times, relentlessly unflattering portrait of Carmichael as he strives to “live more truthfully” after coming out as homosexual in Rothaniel.

As he did in that Emmy-winning 2022 comedy special, Carmichael uses Reality Show to make his most private and vulnerable moments public. The series begins as the comedian is on the pre-Emmys press tour for Rothaniel, chatting with disarming candor about his parents’ devastating reaction to his homosexuality. (“I talked to my parents for the first time since the special,” he tells Seth Meyers. “It was almost very nice until, you know, my mom said, ‘These sins are tearing the family apart.’”) Venturing into his new reality, Carmichael believes the cameras will keep him accountable as he navigates dating, friendships, and family as an out gay man. “Cameras make me feel more comfortable,” he says in one self-taped confessional. “It feels permanent, and it seems dumb to lie.”

<p>HBO</p> Jerrod Carmichael and his dad, Joe, on 'The Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show'


Jerrod Carmichael and his dad, Joe, on 'The Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show'

Reality Show isn’t a DIY video diary. It’s a full production, with a crew that squeezes itself into whatever space Carmichael occupies: A suite at the Maybourne Beverly Hills hotel, the living room of his New York City apartment, a couples’ therapist office, the cab of an RV he drives with his father, Joe, down to South Carolina, and of course, the stage. Whatever Carmichael does — be it confronting Joe about his extramarital affairs, engaging his best friend Tyler, the Creator in an awkward conversation about tensions in their relationship, cheating on his boyfriend with some dude from Grindr, blowing off a childhood buddy on his wedding day — the cameras see it all. The comedian ruminates about these events in his stream-of-consciousness sets, fretting to and agonizing with the audience like they’re 500 of his closest friends. “Long story short, I cheated again…” he tells one crowd, which responds with audible disappointment. “You don’t think I have those groans in my head? I don’t need those groans!”

But he does. For Carmichael, the prize on this Reality Show is the immediate, unfiltered record of how he moves through the world — and how those moves affect the people around him. “My last real secret is that people think I’m nice,” the comedian confessed in Rothaniel — and Reality Show feels like Carmichael’s attempt to force himself to change through radical, often excruciating transparency. It’s part performance art, part cognitive behavioral therapy. “Being honest is cool until you have a reason to lie,” he says, in one of many monologues about his struggles with monogamy. Filmed throughout 2022 and 2023, Reality Show captures the comedian’s budding romance with Mike, a writer and graduate student who accepts his boyfriend’s baggage — in this case, a reality TV crew — with equanimity. At times, the production puts Mike in the untenable position of viewing his own relationship from the outside, as when a camera operator’s movements during one of their couples therapy sessions inadvertently tips him off to Jerrod’s infidelity: “I knew then that they know something that I don’t.”

The constant presence of the Reality Show apparatus, all part of Carmichael’s efforts to “self-Truman Show” himself, does appear to nudge him toward acts of redemption and atonement. “I have this problem — I only like to do exactly what I want to do,” he admits in the third episode, titled “Friendship.” When his longtime friend Jessica comes to crash with him while she pursues a career in acting, Carmichael is forced to face how he too often fails to “show up for people.” Toward the end of the episode, he downs half a gram of psilocybin and starts rolling apology calls to neglected and estranged friends — and he lets viewers hear their disappointment. (“Nobody hurts your f---ing feelings like a gay man”; “You’re not even a f---ing A-list celebrity!”)

<p>HBO</p> Jerrod Carmichael tries on Emmy outfits on 'The Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show'


Jerrod Carmichael tries on Emmy outfits on 'The Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show'

Of course, the catalyst for all of this on-camera candor was his decision to come out as gay, professionally and personally — and the hits Carmichael takes for his selfish behavior are balanced out by Reality Show’s wrenching depiction of how hurt the comedian was (and is) by his parents’ rejection. Several episodes, including “Homecoming" and the aforementioned “Road Trip," feature Carmichael engaging his parents in ruthlessly raw conversations about the birthday phone call that upended their lives. “When I came out, y’all reacted like someone died,” he tells his dad over a diner breakfast. The episode culminates in a long-simmering explosion between Joe, a man who sees the past as the past, and Jerrod, a son who can’t move forward without excavating the pain of that history.

These scenes can be grueling to watch — especially Carmichael’s charged, sometimes contentious exchanges with Cynthia, his devoutly religious mom. (“Whether you’re a murderer, a sinner, or chose to live the gay life, I love you just the way you are,” she tells him.) But once again, that seems to be the point. The comedian muses that his “impulse to record” comes from a need to present his parents with empirical evidence of his hurt — even though airing all these recordings on HBO exposes him to even more potential toxicity. “You treat the camera like it’s God,” bemoans one of the comedian’s friends. “But the god on the other end of this screen is the f---ing public.”

This friend, it should be noted, refuses to reveal his identity on camera, instead choosing to wear a ski mask and blacked-out goggles every time he visits Carmichael. (Internet sleuths believe this friend is Bo Burnham, the comedian/writer who directed Rothaniel, but the man is only identified as “Anonymous.”) He appears multiple times throughout the season and regularly warns Carmichael — in a voice that’s been distorted in post, per his request — how dangerous this Reality Show could be to his mental health. “This is going to be viewed by [a] giant, revolting mass of people,” he says. “All of this is, like, on a conveyor belt into f---ing hell.” What "Anonymous" doesn't seem to understand is that for Jerrod Carmichael, holding things inside can be hell on Earth. Grade: A-

The Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show premieres Friday, March 29, at 11 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.

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