Last October, Starz premiered Survivor’s Remorse, a short little series created by Mike O’Malley and produced by LeBron James. It didn’t gain much attention in terms of ratings and Internet discussions — the two biggest indicators of a show’s success these days — but thankfully Starz’s faith in its series helped bring the show back for Season 2, and it’s time that everyone starts watching.
Survivor’s Remorse follows the story of Cam Calloway (a wonderful Jessie T. Usher), a young and gifted point guard who signs a pro basketball contract and comes into enough money to move his family to Atlanta. It is easy to dismiss it as Starz’s version of Entourage, in that it focuses on a young guy’s sudden fame, and fortune and the struggles that come along with it, but that wouldn’t be fair to Survivor’s Remorse at all. Rather, Remorse is a very funny, nuanced, and carefully told story that successfully portrays a rags-to-riches narrative that rightfully involves race and classism.
The first season — which only consists of six episodes, are all available for free, and which I rushed through in one sitting without ever leaving the couch — was, to put it simply, great. It was well-written, successful in developing characters out of both exposition and new plots, and immediately building a world that is both realistic for professional athletes and fantastical for normal viewers. It feels real, which is the most important part. Entourage was pure fantasy.
What also separates the show from Entourage is that it isn’t a program about Cam and his buddies from home moving to a mansion in Atlanta to raise hell and entertain a revolving door of nameless women. Instead, it’s about his literal family: his mother Cassie (Tichina Arnold), a strong-willed black woman enjoying her new life while also naturally worrying about her son; sister Mary Charles (Erica Ash), who began as a one-note lesbian but becomes more developed; uncle Julius (Mike Epps), who’s the most straight-forward sitcom character and provides the majority of the laughs to balance out the human element; and cousin/manager Reggie (RonReaco Lee) and his wife Missy (Teyonah Parris from Mad Men), who seem to be the only ones concerned about securing Cam’s financial future and making sure he doesn’t blow through his money. The latter is especially important because Cam harbors some guilt about leaving behind his hometown — hence the title — and is more open to helping out old friends than Reggie is). Including Cam’s family brings a necessary, compelling, and inherently dramatic — and heartfelt — element to the series, though it never gets overwhelmingly heavy.
The first season dealt with a variety of subjects. The second episode tackled spanking (particularly in black culture), and coincidentally aired a month after Adrian Peterson was indicted for using a switch to spank his son; Black-ish‘s spanking-centric episode was delayed. Other episodes featured Mary dealing with homophobic comments from a pastor at church or (my personal favorite) Cam agreeing to meet with a Make a Wish kid only to have the kid, who is well-aware of his upcoming death, flip the switch, see through the bullshit, and demand way more inappropriate things than a simple basketball lesson.
The second season of Survivor’s Remorse, which premieres on Saturday, remains a great little gem. Cam is now struggling to handle the pressures of being famous and easily recognized as he’s just trying to go bowling (one encounter includes a fan asking, “My sister loves you. Will you tell her to stop doing heroin?” and handing over a phone). But mostly what the show is exploring now is the balance between his repeated insistence that he’s a “grown ass man” vs his childish behavior — the kind that’s expected when you’re something of a young prodigy suddenly thrust into a very different world — that undermines his statement at every turn. Another episode involves Cam’s mother wanting money for a vagina rejuvenation surgery. While most television series would treat this solely as a joke (and trust me, the episode does get in a handful of funny jokes and cringe-y punchlines at her expense), Remorse eventually turns it into a poignant plot about Cassie’s desire to be seen as a woman, not just a mother.
One beautiful, refreshing aspect of Survivor’s Remorse is its specific depictions of race and culture — similar to Black-ish or Empire — both big and small. There’s the way Cam smarts when a white woman compliments him on being “very articulate” — i.e. expressing her surprise that a black man talks “proper,” which is forever one of the most common and frustrating backhanded compliments. There is also the bigger plot involving Missy chopping off her chemically straightened hair and going natural. There’s an explicit discussion in the hair salon about transitioning (and the frustration of “forcing our hair into something that goes against who we are”) and how, even if you can look like an “amazing, proud, natural woman” there will still be those few months when you’re crying at night about your in-between appearance. But Missy sums it up perfectly: “I’m sick of forcing myself to accept another ethnicity’s ideal.”
It’s so vindicating to see storylines like this on television; it’s so frustrating that there aren’t more viewers tuning in. This is a fantastic series, and one that Starz is practically begging you to watch (again, it’s all streaming for free!). The network clearly has faith in the show — its second season upgraded from six to 10 episodes — and it’s one that I desperately want to last. It’s a rare series but a powerful one.