You Should Be Watching The Singular Survivor’s Remorse

Few shows have the daring (or the freedom) to be as racially candid as this one

Spoiler warning for the Season 2 finale, which, if you’re not caught up with this amazing show yet, what are you doing with your life? Go watch it from the beginning right now.

Survivor’s Remorse: rare is such a jarring disconnect between a show’s title and its actual tone. Often associated with catastrophes, the title’s lugubrious phrase refers here to the guilt that ascending NBA star Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher) feels about not giving back everything he can to the Boston slum where he grew up. (The series is loosely inspired by LeBron James, who executive produces.) But life bursts through in every scene of this Starz comedy. Its focus is serious — about how the family dynamics of Cam’s close kin are distorted by their dependence on his financial support — but its tone is racy, raunchy, and exuberantly irreverent.

That’s the case even in the first two episodes of Season 3, which find the members of the Calloway clan absorbing the sudden death of kooky Uncle Julius (Mike Epps). It’s the closest the show’s title and tone ever come to matching one another, and that atypicality is probably why, if you’re thinking of checking out this remarkable series, you should start from the pilot. Fans will appreciate the return of the sitcom’s screwball-fast repartee by the third episode of the new season, along with the flabbergasted skepticism, the battle-tested wisdom, and the compassionate-but-no-bullshit discussions on race, class, gender, and religion that make Survivor’s Remorse one of the best shows currently on the air.

Written by series creator Mike O’Malley (best known for playing Burt Hummel on Glee), the premiere has the grief-stricken Calloways acting like extreme versions of themselves: Cam’s short-tempered sister, M-Chuck (Erica Ash), who sees herself as her gifted little brother’s earliest defender, lashes out at the family outsider and Cam’s new girlfriend, Allison (Meagan Tandy), whose car Julius was driving while toking when he ran a red light and was hit by a truck. Cam’s cousin and manager, Reggie (RonReaco Lee), becomes grimly practical as he preemptively shields Cam from fame- and swag-seeking vultures at Julius’s funeral. Most movingly, Cam’s know-it-all mom, Cassie (Tichina Arnold), consults her Chinese billionaire boyfriend, Chen (Robert Wu), about his countrymen’s beliefs while grasping to find the right final farewell for her brother. Having stomped out of their last church after the pastor disapproved of Mary Charles’s lesbianism on the pulpit, Cassie wonders if she’ll ever find the right house of worship for herself and her family.

There’s been no playbook for the Calloways for at least three years: Not in their uncomfortable move from north of the Mason-Dixon line to Atlanta, and not in the self-protective isolation and the absurd responsibilities that come with wealth, celebrity, and public scrutiny. Cam and company are used to playing new situations by ear — and their missteps make for some truly great comedy — but that doesn’t make not knowing how to mourn Julius’s death any easier.

Survivor’s Remorse returns to its brainy buoyancy soon enough, with a greater focus on the unfamous Calloways and their struggles to find meaning in their lives. Cam’s mother and sister were initially jubilant by his pro-basketball success, of course, but now they flounder with too much time on their hands. “Life’s short, right?” M-Chuck asks after Julius’s funeral. “But it’s long if you don’t know what you’re doing with your life.” Still in court-mandated therapy after an impulsive assault last season, M-Chuck doesn’t want to stay an unofficial ward of her brother for the rest of her life, but has trouble getting the support she needs from her casually cutting mother. In a parallel story line, Missy (Teyonah Parris), Reggie’s middle-class wife, can’t help growing increasingly resentful that she gave up her career so that her husband could continue to manage Cam. Her misdirected perfectionism begins to grate on Reggie, even if her SJW- and MBA-inflected instincts tend to be more often right than not.

Cam’s romance with Allison was last season’s weakest story line, and so it’s a relief to take a break, at least in the season’s first half, from their puppy love and their pure-hearted humility. Missy and Reggie, in contrast, have always been irresistible for their intertwined desires — a sexy, searching, picture-perfect power couple on the rise, strivers in the best possible sense. They wonder if they’re finally ready to have their first child, but there’s more tension in the Vaughn household than ever before. Missy steps in to take over PR duties for Cam, and in almost any other sitcom, she’d make an excellent addition to the team from day one, or at least by day four. On Survivor’s Remorse, which is more realistic about the difficulties of working with family, her attempt to feature a dark-skinned model in a magazine layout for Cam — she’s tired of the perception that women who can’t “pass” the brown-paper-bag test aren’t attractive enough for pro athletes to date — immediately lands her where so many activists have found themselves before: (not unfairly) blamed for gumming up a smooth-running machine. As dismaying as it is to see one of the most solid — and frankly, aspirational — relationships on the show stress-tested like this, it’s a necessary step in the growth of the characters. It helps, too, that Lee and Parris are the most layered performers of this wildly charismatic cast.

After series-best episodes about “natural” black hair and the benefits of vaginal rejuvenation (I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it, either), O’Malley and his writers continue to bring fascinating takes on uncomfortable issues like colorism, gendered sacrifices, and the continued fight for mental health and LGBTQ acceptance in many circles. And — it needs to be said — few other shows have the daring (or the freedom) to be as racially candid as this one. Living under the shadow of “Mount Racemore” — a mountain carved with Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson — the characters are rarely afforded the opportunity to forget their Yankee unease with the South. “You know what's 20 miles outside Atlanta?” asks Missy, practically with a shudder. “Georgia.”

Even Cam can only stay clueless for so long, and so one story line, about the athlete’s words taken out of context by opportunistic outrage addicts in order to insult children born with birth defects, feels like a retread from previous episodes. But with M-Chuck, Missy, and even Cassie finally accepting that they can’t live off someone else’s fame and money forever, Season 3 promises to be an anthem for the everywoman.

Movie & TV Awards 2018