When Survivor’s Remorse first kicked off, its most original character was Mary Charles (Erica Ash), the older sister to NBA player Cam (Jessie T. Usher). Nicknamed “M. Chuck” by her family, the Dorchester-raised black lesbian was defined by her violent temper, her high sex drive, her difficult relationship with her mother Cassie (Tichina Arnold), and her brother and their cousin/his manager Reggie’s (RonReaco Lee) bumpy rise into the millionaire class. Far from treating her like a LGBTQ token, the Starz comedy has made Mary Charles arguably the most vibrant character in a show stacked with foulmouthed smart-asses. In Remorse’s first two years, the show was rightly curious about M. Chuck’s shifting relationship with Cam as she morphed from his schoolyard protector to his financial dependent. And in the third season, which concluded last night, she gravitated toward getting an education and finally learning who her father is.
With Teyonah Parris rounding out the cast as Reggie’s MBA-educated wife Missy, Survivor’s Remorse has given its female characters some of its most impressive story lines, with series-best episodes about natural hair and, somehow, vaginal rejuvenation. After killing off Mike Epps’s Uncle Julius in the premiere, Season 3 strived to be the show’s most ambitious one yet, exploring the Calloways’ grief, plumbing Reggie’s fury at his abusive, alcoholic dad, isolating adorable power couple Reggie and Missy from one another, and introducing Cam’s guilt about aborting his child back in high school.
But the show didn’t quite measure up to its towering aspirations this year, in large part because it sidelined its female characters and bungled plots involving urgent women’s issues. Survivor’s Remorse has always had a slight gender problem, most readily visible in its leering camera. But the show’s failure to live up to its own feminist ideals knocked it from its perch this season as one of the best comedies on television.
Ironically, the series seemed all but destined for another superlative year last week, when the show deftly tackled its darkest and most sensitive subject yet: Cassie’s gang rape at the age of 15, which resulted in her pregnancy with Mary Charles. In her best scene on the show to date, Arnold tore our hearts into pieces as a defiant Cassie told her son, “I made my peace with [the sexual assault], and that peace is never talking about it. This is the last time I ever will. … When you’re poor and you look like me and lived where I lived, what gets done to you and how don’t matter to nobody. Fuck, it can’t even matter to me. Or else, I will fall apart.” But a jarringly casual line took me out of the near perfection of that scene, when Cassie tells Cam, “A bunch of boys ran a train on me.” Mama Calloway could make a sailor blush with her swearing, but that seems like a discordantly dehumanizing way of describing a profoundly traumatic thing that happened to oneself. One could contend that victims often use distancing language to detach themselves from distressing events, but the “train” is the only instance of such flippant language.
I don’t think it’s a phrase I’d bother nitpicking if Mary Charles didn’t repeat it — that a group of men “pulled the train on Ma” — in a pivotal and utterly botched scene in the finale. M. Chuck tells her sole (and rather improbable) friend, team owner Jimmy (Chris Bauer), about her unknown paternity, and the older man comforts her with a story about his own shitty parents and the Horatio Alger–like success he’s managed despite them. Except it’s difficult to focus on Bauer when the scene is predicated on Mary Charles’s startlingly gross betrayal of her mom’s trust by telling Jimmy — technically Cassie’s son’s employer — about her rape. Equally atrocious is the bizarre and offensive possibility that M. Chuck entertains, with absolutely no evidence for it: that Cassie might be “exaggerating” her assault. If I were to give the writers the benefit of the doubt, it could be argued that Mary Charles’s harrowing hypothesis is an irrational and faulty coping mechanism, especially given the often-strained relation between mother and daughter. But the scene isn’t framed as such, and thus seems to exemplify, rather than critique, the aspect of rape culture that discounts survivors’ accounts.
Just as appallingly tone-deaf was the conclusion of this season’s sixth episode, “No Child Left Behind,” which found Cassie having to decide (after a great deal of unlikely twists and turns) whether she’d allow a clitoridectomy to take place in the mansion she shares with her son. The episode features a heated back-and-forth between Missy, the most bookishly progressive among the show’s main characters, and Eka (Rhyan Michele), Cassie’s new Nigerian-immigrant friend. The genital cutting of Eka’s preteen daughter goes forward, though not at Cassie’s house, in a plot development that ends with a false equivalency between clitoridectomies and circumcisions and the show actually ceding the moral ground to Eka. That resolution is especially dispiriting because it comes immediately after “The Photoshoot,” which features exactly the kind of provocative debate Survivor’s Remorse can pull off with aplomb when it pits equally compelling sides against one another (the need for dark-skinned black models versus pulling opportunities for light-skinned black models) while providing further insight into its characters (in this case, Missy and Reggie butting heads about when and how to make political statements within business).
Survivor’s Remorse was no more generous toward its recurring female characters this year. Cam’s love interest, Allison (Meagan Tandy), essentially disappeared, while the show trotted out the tired trope of the sexy female journalist once again in the season finale — a type it already introduced last year with a different character. For Season 4, already confirmed, the show can — and needs to — do better by its women.