[This is a review of Survivor's Remorse season 2, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
At first glance, pairing Survivor's Remorse with Starz's newest comedic offering, Blunt Talk, seems like a poor fit. After all, a series obsessed with Freudian psychology and boozy debauchery – that's also headlined by a former captain of the Starship Enterprise – doesn't exactly strike one as a likely companion to such a smart, funny, and compassionate sports comedy.
And yet, Survivor's Remorse, despite being one of TV's most well written single-camera comedies, remains one of its most tragically unsung. So, with the potential lead-in that Blunt Talk's combination of recognizable names and raucous antics may offer, there's no shame in the elder statesman letting its younger, more uncouth sibling turn some much-needed heads in its direction.
Last season, the series, created and executive produced by actor-writer Mike O'Malley (Shameless, Justified), tore through its six-episode season by introducing basketball superstar Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher) and his entourage of family members – his mother Cassie (Tichina Arnold), sister M-Chuck (Erica Ash), and Uncle Julius (Mike Epps) – who moved with him to Atlanta, after he signed his first big contract. Helping manage the burgeoning brand and business that is Cam Calloway is his cousin Reggie (played by the fantastic RonReaco Lee), who is married to business-minded beauty, Missy (Teyonah Paris, Mad Men).
The premise admittedly sounds familiar – like Entourage familiar – and a cursory glance at the synopsis will likely have most casual viewers making a not incorrect comparison to HBO's similarly themed sports comedy, Ballers. But once you've spent a few minutes with the Calloways, you'll find that such comparisons drop away faster than the Knicks' chances in the playoffs.
The series takes place in a world where (for obvious licensing reasons) there perhaps isn't an actual NBA, but rather an NBA-like league, even though there's mention of players like Michael Jordan and LeBron James (who, coincidentally, is an executive producer on the show). But the logistics of a somewhat fictionalized versus purely fictional pro basketball league don't really matter, as Survivor's Remorse isn't interested in being a part of that winking, self-congratulatory, behind-the-scenes culture that drove Entourage and currently drives Ballers. This series is far more interested in developing a distinct narrative and creating solid characters to explore it in a compelling way.
In fact, although the narrative revolves around a superstar pro athlete, there's no actual sports in the series. So far, Cam has never been seen playing a game or at practice (he's gone to and come from practice), and there's been no interaction with anyone on the team – outside of the team's owner, Jimmy Flaherty (Chris Bauer, True Blood). It may sound odd to say, but in keeping the basketball stuff on the sidelines, Survivor's Remorse becomes a stronger show; one in which the wants, needs, and actions of its very likable characters dictate the storyline, instead of those same characters being lazily shuffled into a narrative built expressly to service the sports-or-celebrity-themed needs of the industry it is depicting.
And in the season premiere, 'Grown-Ass Man,' the benefits of keeping basketball at arm's length are on display, just as they were throughout all of season 1. Much of this has to do with the way the show is constructed. Cam's adventures in pro basketball may act as the catalyst for the storyline, but despite being incredibly charismatic, Usher isn't necessarily the star. In fact, with a cast of primary characters this big, the series falls somewhere between an ensemble piece, and being told from Reggie's point of view. That puts most episodes in an interesting place – often freeing them up to follow any one of the Calloways the story sees fit, while also not relying on some sort of wish fulfillment/crisis for Cam as a form of shallow, perfunctory payoff at the end of each installment.
'Grown-Ass Man' is not only an excellent episode – in fact one of the strongest in the series so far – it also sees the story take the opposing perspectives of Cam and Jimmy and pit them against one another in a fascinating way that reveals a tremendous amount of both men's worldview. What's compelling is that these viewpoints are constructed in such a way that both characters' frame of reference – on the issue of Cam's off-court contractual agreements – are totally clear and reasonable – or the viewer can at least understand where each man is coming from. Cam feels like he's being disrespected, telling Jimmy to "Talk to me, not at me," while Jimmy stresses how often people in positions such as theirs have to "Do things they don't want to do."
It's such a simple argument for two people to have, but it is given weight by the power dynamics at play within not only the very specific constructs of an employer-employee relationship – made complex for taking place in the world of professional sports – but also by exploring the more significant matter of race the series so deftly handles.
The scene with Cam and Jimmy in kitchen offers a great example of how well written and well acted this series is, and how seriously it takes its characters but still allows them to be funny. Usher has clearly settled into a groove acting-wise, which allows him to find a spark to Cam's anger and to express it without the sacrificing the character's integrity. Bauer, meanwhile, was more or less a footnote in season 1, so it's great to see him more involved this early and to see him deliver a great performance to boot.
Survivor's Remorse has four additional episodes this season (bringing the count to ten), which means extra time to tell its story and hopefully build more of an audience. And that's all this series needs to build, as it is one of those rare TV shows that came out of the box with no assembly required.
Survivor's Remorse continues next Saturday with 'A Time to Punch' @9:30pm on Starz.