Life is strange. Case in point: One of the best-written comedies on TV right now was created by a guy who played a goofy dad on an early-2000’s CBS sitcom that I used to watch in re-runs on TBS when I came home from school. The biggest name behind Survivor’s Remorse, the Starz original about a young basketball player who’s just gone pro, is executive producer LeBron James. (The series is very loosely based on his early career.) But the show’s creator, character actor Mike O’Malley, is best known for playing the hapless Jimmy Hughes on the sitcom Yes, Dear — or, if you’re under 25, Kurt’s dad on Glee. O’Malley is also a seriously sharp comedic writer. If there’s one show I wish more people were watching — and talking about — it’s Survivor’s Remorse, which returns in fine form for a third season this Sunday.
Survivor’s Remorse centers on young Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher), who signs with a fictional pro basketball team in Atlanta and moves down from Boston with his family. That family is the real focus of the show, which rarely ventures onto the basketball court or even into the locker room — this isn’t Friday Night Lights. Cam lives in a tricked-out mansion with his mother, Cassie (Tichina Arnold), and his sister, Mary-Charles, a.k.a. “M-Chuck” (the hilarious Erica Ash), a deliciously profane character whose (female) sexual conquests outrank her hotshot brother’s.
The show’s central relationship is between Cam and his older cousin and manager, Reggie Vaughn (RonReaco Lee). Reggie’s wife, Missy (the wonderful Teyonah Parris), has a more privileged background than her husband’s family, and resents having to give up her own job to move down south, even if Atlanta has so far been good to them. “You know what’s 20 miles outside Atlanta?” she asks her husband in the Season 3 premiere. “Georgia.”
At the end of its terrific second season, the show took a tragic turn: Cam’s Uncle Julius (a very funny Mike Epps) is T-boned by a truck when he accidentally drives through a red light. If Epps’s subsequent casting in the (now-cancelled) ABC sitcom Uncle Buck wasn’t enough of a hint, the Season 3 premiere confirms Julius’s death.
Julius’s departure briefly upends the show’s “blue-skies” quality. Survivor’s Remorse is delightfully blunt about issues of race, class, and sexuality, but it’s got a light touch and a warm, gooey center. The death of Julius is the show’s heaviest event yet, and the first two episodes of Season 3 feel appropriately weighed down by this loss.
But serious subject matter never comes at the expense of Survivor’s Remorse’s bubbly spirit, and the show doesn’t sacrifice its wicked humor in the face of Julius’s death. In the second episode of the new season, Cam finds a prayer card from an Atlanta church in Julius’s wallet. When Cassie visits the priest, she’s shocked to discover her freewheeling, weed-smoking brother helped out at the church’s weekly meals for the homeless — until the priest informs her that Julius was there to eat. (At the episode’s end, we find out via flashback that neither explanation is accurate, but the truth is too good to spoil.)
Survivor’s Remorse is a political show that never puts politics before character or story. Its goal is to make you laugh, not make a point, and the characters’ constant verbal sparring is one of the show’s strongest aspects. In one upcoming episode, Missy takes charge at a magazine photo shoot for Cam, firing a model because she’s too light-skinned — “a damn-near white girl.” When Reggie tells her to let it go, Missy pushes back, arguing, “All my life I have been told to let it go.” She’s sick of only seeing light-skinned, wavy-haired black women portrayed in the media — at the beginning of Season 2, she decides to stop chemically relaxing her hair and wear it naturally — and now she’s finally in a position to do something about it.
But the show keeps adding texture to this conflict: The model confronts Missy on her way out the door — she’s got a kid, and for her this was an important job. Later, Reggie chides her for making a business decision for personal reasons, and without informing Cam. “We’re all a part of the problem sometimes,” he says. At the end of the episode, the issue isn’t neatly resolved, but Reggie and Missy grudgingly agree to move past it (and to work out the tension in bed, as this couple often does).
For all its fizzy energy and madcap scenarios — in one second season episode, Cassie undergoes vaginal rejuvenation surgery; in another, M-Chuck reams out a white re-enactor during a visit to a historic plantation, and later sleeps with her — Survivor’s Remorse has a good head on its shoulders and its feet firmly planted in the real world. The characters are forced to grapple with the expectations that come with their new social status, but they also have to come to terms with the ramifications of their own choices, navigating both the wider world and their relationships with each other — which always come first. Everyone’s just trying to do the right thing. It’s a refreshingly un-cynical approach to comedy at a time when there’s plenty of cynicism on TV.
Watch it, please.
Survivor’s Remorse airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Starz.