This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
On the March 20 episode of NBC comedy The Carmichael Show, 20-something couple Jerrod (comedian Jerrod Carmichael) and Maxine (played by Amber Stevens West) have a “sexual accident”: The condom breaks.
That fictional contraceptive failure gives the show, now in its second season and already known for its lighthearted treatment of heavy topics, an entrée to counter notions that equate emergency contraception (EC) with abortion, distribute correct information about how EC works, and portray a Black family frankly discussing pregnancy options.
It’s not the first time EC has made primetime. For example, VH1 reality show Love & Hip Hop: New York cast member Tara Wallace has mentioned her use of Plan B several times, including during the show’s March 21 reunion. But NBC earns points for walking viewers through how to obtain and use EC, even if the episode conveys a mixed message about just how involved families should be in relatives’ reproductive lives.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Shortly after Maxine and Jerrod discover their condom has ruptured, the two soon arrive at the conclusion that EC—sometimes called the “morning-after pill”—is their best bet. Neither wants a child right now.
Their discussion is sitcom-brief, and the couple maintains a respectful dialogue even as they mull over the prospect of an unintended pregnancy. Jerrod defers to Maxine’s wishes. She’s calm and has a plan: “I know we’re going to be fine, because we’re going to go to CVS and we’re going to get a Plan B pill.”
Jerrod replies: “You don’t know how happy that makes me. God, emergency contraception is always the answer,” suggesting that Jerrod is familiar with EC or may have had a partner use it before.
It’s a picture-perfect scenario with relatively little stress and a quick consensus. But perhaps Jerrod and Maxine are too ideal. Some studies show that young people struggle to find out information about EC. A study published in the March issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health found that among its sample of 13- to 24-year-old boys and young men, only about 40 percent had ever heard of emergency contraception. A 2014 survey from British sexual-health organization FPA found that 43 percent of girls and women ages 16-to-54 didn’t know where to get EC if they needed it. Education wasn’t a fail-safe way of getting EC information, though EC knowledge went up with age; only 17 percent learned about EC in school or college.
So Jerrod and Maxine may be in the sweet spot of young adulthood—where they are old enough to have obtained contraceptive knowledge, are mature enough to discuss it, have enough cash to pay for it, and are not too embarrassed to seek it out.
But before they can reach a nearby pharmacy, a sudden storm forces them to take shelter at Jerrod’s family home. His parents (played by David Alan Grier of In Living Color fame and longtime actress Loretta Devine) figure out something is amiss with their son and his live-in girlfriend. Jerrod reveals the news: The two young people are anxious because, just an hour before, they realized there was a slight possibility that they could be parents.
The announcement kicks mother Cynthia (Devine) into overdrive. Affectionate but controlling, she digs out her yellowing, decades-old wedding dress to woo the couple to the marital altar. She imagines aloud her joy at being a grandmother and the possible baby as a boy she’d name Jeremiah.
As the storm keeps the Carmichaels confined in their basement, the devoutly Christian Cynthia grows increasingly shrill as she begs Jerrod and Maxine not to “have an abortion.” When Jerrod’s former sister-in-law responds to Maxine’s SOS and arrives with her own Plan B stash, Cynthia grabs the pill, flushes it down the toilet, and tells Jerrod and Maxine that now they need a “Plan C.”
Both Maxine and Jerrod remain firm with Cynthia. Maxine states that a pregnancy doesn’t require marriage these days.
Most importantly, Jerrod refutes his mother’s anti-choice rhetoric and distinguishes between abortion and EC: “Ma, Ma, stop acting like we are killing a baby. We are not. We are killing the idea of a baby.”
It’s an awkward explanation that doesn’t do much to dispel Cynthia’s protests or challenge the language of “killing.” And given Maxine’s status as a therapist-in-training who favors talking things out in her trademark wonky, almost clinical way, it’s odd that The Carmichael Show doesn’t capitalize on the character’s dispassionate communication style to help its viewers understand what EC actually does.
Still, it’s probably too much to hope that a TV comedy get in the medical weeds and explain that EC works by stopping the release or implantation of an egg. EC prevents pregnancy from happening at all, whereas abortion ends an established pregnancy.
What’s most important is that the show conveys useful basic information about Plan B: that it must be used within 72 hours of unprotected sex for maximum effectiveness, that it’s available over-the-counter, and that it’s relatively inexpensive.
Indeed, it’s the cost—cited as around $40 on the show, though some EC brands can cost less or more—that fascinates his father, Joe. He echoes Jerrod’s sentiment that EC is a technological wonder; Jerrod had told Maxine, “I don’t care if they ever cure cancer, ’cause science has done enough. They cured pregnancy, and that’s a hard thing to do. It’s so amazing.”
For his part, Joe is learning about EC for the first time. “So this B plan, it stops anything before it gets started?” he asks. “Well, get out of here. How much does this scientific achievement cost? … 40 bucks? Man, something that amazing should cost like $7,000.”
Joe’s response opens the door for further discussion, and it’s not often that we get to see men, particularly Black men, on TV talk about their feelings on fertility and fatherhood. Joe admits that after hearing decades ago that Cynthia was pregnant for the first time, he drove around and cried in his pickup truck from simultaneous excitement and anxiety. His older son talks about his apparent low sperm count and his unfulfilled wishes to have children. And as Jerrod listens to this family free-for-all about whether he and Maxine should seek emergency contraception, he begins to think that maybe he doesn’t want children in the future, either. This revelation throws Maxine off guard because she knows that although a pregnancy is not a good idea now, motherhood is definitely on her bucket list.
While Maxine’s maternal aspirations temporarily ally her with Jerrod’s judgmental and difficult mother, it’s hard to know what the show’s producers intended when they made a contraception failure into a family affair. As Maxine and Jerrod beat back their family’s objections or answer questions, the viewer wonders if the point is that young people must know their bodies, their contraceptive options, and what’s best for them when loved ones disagree? That’s a message I can get on board with. Or is it that people like Cynthia, who eventually comes around and tells Jerrod she understands their choice, can be supportive of others’ reproductive decision making? That’s important as well.
Or is it that there should be more discussion about unintended pregnancy within families or more honest dialogue about planning the family you want?
If the producers wanted to instill that last message, I’m not convinced that having the family weigh in on a predicament like Maxine and Jerrod’s, in which the pair had already clearly come to a decision based on what works best for them, sends a message I want to hear.
With a family like the Carmichaels, viewers can see why Maxine wanted the Plan B to be hush-hush. Family influence is one thing. But that influence can become coercion, and flushing someone’s contraceptives down the toilet makes for plot tension on TV, but is undeniably un-funny in real life. And though the episode ended, it’s hard to imagine that, in an actual American family, the discussion would wrap up with such a neat resolution. The idea of an entire family weighing in on a couple’s contraceptive decision sounds more like a disaster than fodder for a laugh track.
CORRECTION: This piece was updated to clarify how emergency contraception works.