Created by Mike O’Malley and executive produced by Lebron James, “Survivor’s Remorse” is a show whose joke-y premise caught me off guard before I began watching. When a comedy has a premise along the lines of a young basketball player signing a multimillion dollar contract and moving his family out to Atlanta, I’ve come to expect a certain type of humor and a certain type of feel, that of a conveyer belt sitcom with forced jokes and half-baked sentimentality instead of genuine insight, even from a premium cable channel like Starz. Boy, was I wrong about this show. Not only is “Survivor’s Remorse” an intricate satire of celebrity athlete culture that pulls no punches when it comes to the issues it tackles, it’s also an incredibly funny comedy and weighty human drama in its own right that might actually buy Starz its ticket into the premium cable big time in terms of quality original programming.
The starting premise seems innocent enough on its face; Cam Calloway(Jessie T. Usher), a young basketball player on the come up, has just signed to an unnamed team in Atlanta for a buttload of cash. He moves his entire family out to Atlanta from Boston, including his mother Cassie (Tichina Arnold), sister Mary Charles aka M-Chuck (Erica Ash), manager/cousin Reggie and his wife Missy (RonReaco Lee & Teyonah Parris), and uncle Julius (Mike Epps), and they all attempt to enjoy the high life that Cam’s worked so hard to attain.
The main conceit of the show revolves around Cam being stuck between spending his newly earned money on typical possessions like Aston Martins and wanting to give back to his community in Boston and to old friends and family in particular. As his manager, Reggie is looking to keep Cam’s eyes on the prize – that being endorsements and ways to grow his stock portfolio so that the Calloways can continue to live the good life.
Sounds pretty routine for a comedy series, right? The big surprise is how dark the content of the show manages to get while still maintaining a consistent feel in between the tonal shifts. PR mishaps are one half of the comedic drive of this series (the other being the regular interactions between the Calloways), and they run the gamut of current events from blackmailing in the form of old home videos, to embarrassing public statements, to attempting to convince a pastor to accept M-Chuck as a lesbian, the show covers a lot of topical ground in just four episodes. In the second episode, Cassie makes some remarks about beating a young Cam with Hot Wheels tracks while at a press event, and the next day a fan stops Cam and lets him know that he now beats his son so that he can be as “well-adjusted” as Cam is. When Cam and the family reluctantly visit a comatose teenager in episode three, he miraculously comes to and demands a little more than Make A Wish would normally be able to provide.
Just as it doesn’t pull punches in its subject matter, it doesn’t over-valorize any of the Calloways; they emerge as imperfect but fully fleshed out humans from episode one and their layers are revealed over the course. It helps that the cast meshes together so well, with Erica Ash’s sex-hungry and acerbic turn as M-Chuck to Mike Epp’s hustler-with-a-heart-of-gold Julius being the main standouts. It’s a tremendous effort on behalf of the cast to pull off the blatant switches in tone from cracking wise over bong hits to looking down the barrel of a gun over private childhood videos and make it seem believable and authentic, but all six of the core cast members find a way.
Star has ordered a short six-episode season one for “Survivor’s Remorse,” which is a little worrying – why only six episodes? A season as short as that, especially given that these are half-hour episodes we’re talking about here, hints at the fact that Starz may not have had faith in this project from the jump. With the pedigree of the talent involved, including an executive producing co-sign from Lebron James, whose early life experience inspired some of the show, and the quality of the finished product, it’s a little strange that Starz is being so cautious with this one.
All things considered, “Survivor’s Remorse” is as refreshing as a comedy about a newly minted sports family knee-deep in the celebrity athlete culture, can be. Its subject matter is gritty without being self-serious or pandering, and gut-bustingly funny in how far the Calloways are willing to take us through their actions.
“Black-Ish,” this is not.
“Survivor’s Remorse” premieres Saturday, October 4 at 9 pm ET/PT on STARZ.
Watch the first 2 episodes of the series immediately below: