LeBron James has two NBA titles, four MVPs and huge endorsement deals with McDonalds, Nike, and Coca-Cola. Is he a prima donna (or worse) for holding a primetime special to announce where he was going to play basketball, or for putting on a costume-clad introductory event with a light show, fog machine and screaming fans to celebrate his arrival to a team that won one-third of the titles that Michael Jordan did in Chicago? That’s a rhetorical question, but “Survivor’s Remorse” should come as a surprise to NBA fans, not because James is executive producing a show about a basketball superstar, but because somehow that show isn’t really about him at all.
It’s easy to get caught up in James’ involvement with the show because, frankly, there’s no one else of note involved: The most familiar face in the young cast is Mike Epps, and he’s not exactly a household name. Yet “Survivor’s Remorse,” the new half-hour comedy created by Mike O’Malley, owes much more to an HBO show than it does its superstar EP. Chronicling the off-court actions of its star, Cam Calloway (Jessie Usher), “Survivor’s Remorse” feels very much like the sports version of “Entourage” — without the magnetic Jeremy Piven to sell it.
Your new Vince is the aforementioned Cam, a hard-working professional basketball player who broke out last season and just signed a more-than-lucrative deal with the Atlanta Hawks. He brings his whole family along for the ride, too, including his slovenly-but-loving uncle (Epps), his nurturing and short-tempered mother (Tichina Arnold), his proudly foul-mouthed lesbian sister (Erica Ash) and his cousin Reggie, who’s also Cam’s manager (RonReaco Lee). Reggie’s wife Missy (Teyonah Parris) is the most vocal critic of the move, citing early and often how she’d prefer not to be living in a red state — and by “red,” I mean the red found on Confederate Flags still hung proudly in the Southern metropolis.
It’s this conflict that the latest Starz original has the chance to mine for some depth, but writer/creator O’Malley doesn’t so much avoid the topic as he mismanages it. In the fourth episode, “The Decisions,” Cam tries to pick a new church for his family to attend on Sundays, and Reggie reluctantly interviews for a membership at the local country club. Cam’s hunt is made trickier by his need for a Southern minister accepting of his gay sister, while Reggie’s runs much more smoothly than anticipated when he discovers it’s an exclusively African American club. These make for solid A and B stories, but both merely acknowledge the racial divides rather than breaking them down.
The same can be said for an even more obvious and topical target concerning modern sports stars: public image. In the second episode, “On the Carpet,” Cam is faced with the difficult — and very timely — issue of modern parenting. His mother, Cassie, tells a reporter her son is the man he is today because of the “whoopings” she gave him as a child. “The bruises will heal,” she tells the comically inept interviewer, but nothing funny comes from the fallout — and nothing funny should. The story so closely parallels the real-life events of Adrian Peterson and his son, it’s somewhat remarkable that they must have written and shot this episode long before that story broke.
Yet O’Malley and his staff don’t handle the subject matter with the gravity it’s been given by today’s media. After all, “Survivor’s Remorse” is a comedy by definition: Each episode is 30 minutes long and there are a few laughs scattered throughout that time frame — but some of them feel very forced. After a man comes up to Cam on the sidewalk and tells him he started beating his son after hearing what Cassie said (yes, this really happens), somehow the writers find a way to end the episode with Cam and Reggie taking turns hitting each other with plastic Hot Wheels’s race tracks, the same item Cassie used to strike them with when they were kids.
Balance becomes a problem in “Survivor’s Remorse.” It’s hard to laugh at times, like with the above “happy ending,” and it’s not ruthless enough to be effective satire. It doesn’t want to be that, though. After watching four episodes, one gets the feeling “Survivor’s Remorse” is too weighty a title for a show that wants to be lighter, and often is despite its content. The cast gets along amiably. The stories move at a brisk clip. Cam’s problems are real and somehow (mostly) avoid the “rich white people” label given to other shows where more money only brings more problems.
Perhaps most crucially, though, is LeBron James’ role in the production. His towering presence is brought down to size in these first few episodes, wisely making him a valuable reference point and not the show’s overwhelming subject. He may still be the most recognizable name attached to this or any other Starz original, but he’s not stealing this show.