Thanks to the popularity of Power and Outlander, Starz has finally become a player in the premium-cable field. But its most provocative and fully realized original series might be Survivor’s Remorse, whose second season premieres this Saturday at 9:30 p.m. A logline doesn’t really do it justice, but the gist is this: Irish New Englander Mike O’Malley — known to most audiences as ESPN’s the Rick, Kurt’s dad on Glee, mobster Nicky Augustine on Justified, or Jimmy on Yes, Dear — creates family comedy/sports-and-media satire about the Calloways, a blue-collar black family from Boston who head south and find wealth when golden-boy basketball star Cam (Jesse Usher) signs with Atlanta.
Maybe the premise seemed too conventional to passersby, or perhaps the Saturday time slot and abbreviated first-season run (the second season is its first, with a full ten-episode order) held it back from finding an audience. But those who tuned in guffawed, gasped, and grinned approvingly each week as the show used its window to obliterate stereotypes, subvert timely current-events memes, and offer something challenging, but hugely entertaining, within the confines of a traditional half-hour format. More to the point, it’s a much-needed antidote to the atmosphere of political correctness clouding everyone’s sense of what’s fair game in comedy. So, as the newest slate of episodes approach, here are the most compelling reasons why Survivor’s Remorse is must-see stuff.
It’s about something.
Something more, that is, than what happens when poor dudes get rich (i.e., buy things, have sex, do drugs, etc. … though that all happens, too). At heart, Survivor’s Remorse is about Cam’s struggle to mature into his dual role as high-profile athlete and role model with bills to pay and butts to kiss. That tension is what gives Cam dimension (there’s little to no actual basketball played in the series), in addition to generating real conflict and resolution between him and his clan. In fact, the show is downright vicious in its send-up of how the sports world commodifies the players it views as assets, spending little time further glamorizing a gaudy business.
No topic is too touchy.
Last fall, the nation was abuzz over whether star NFL player Adrian Peterson — who pled no-contest to assaulting his 4-year-old son with a “switch,” or a tree branch stripped of its leaves — was an unconscionable child abuser or being unfairly singled out for enacting a common (if non-condonable) form of parental discipline. Remorse’s contribution to the debate? Write a second episode in which Cam’s mom (Tichina Arnold) hits the red carpet and raises hell by enthusiastically detailing the whuppings she dished out to her son with extension cords and Hot Wheels tracks. This year, the show conveys its POV on police-civilian relations and domestic violence by exposing how systemic issues become opportunistic fodder for media (NPR gets it good), politicians, and celebrities. Remorseis incredibly tactical about its cynicism and earns its uncomfortable laughs.
It’s politically incorrect.
It’s not that Survivor’s Remorse doesn’t distinguish between decency and intolerance, activism and exploitation. It just doesn’t pander or moralize. Case in point: This season’s second episode skewers reactionary cause-heads who seize on a sibling scuffle between Cam and his sister M-Chuck (Erica Ash) by decrying woman-on-man assault. But it’s cousin Reggie’s normally reserved wife, Missy (Teyonah Parris), who gets the last word. After cringing through a court-mandated PSA featuring her cousins-in-law, she declares, “When people use a false equivalency and make light of domestic violence against women, it makes me wanna punch them in their fucking face.” Amen.
It has a taste for the absurd.
While the show mines much of its humor from sensitive material (a black Northeast family settling in among Georgia’s antebellum legacy does not go un-confronted), O’Malley and his writers aren’t immune to farce. Among its Curb Your Enthusiasm–worthy scenarios: Mouthy dying-wish kids drop dead at Cam’s dinner table; the basketball team seriously bungles its “Nelson Mandela Night”; Cam’s uncle Julius (Mike Epps) goes overboard repelling a neighbor’s dog that defecates on their driveway. And the uniformly terrific cast is up for anything, selling broad humor with the same ease as social commentary.
It’s a family affair.
The Calloways are TV’s true modern family. They hate being far apart but loathe being too close for comfort. They’ve got each other’s backs something fierce — even if it means nearly coming to blows with a pastor who won’t accept openly gay M-Chuck into his church — but fight and tear each other down in that way only real loved ones do. They make each other cringe with TMI about taking shits and one-night stands, but offer meaningful perspective when any of them feels disoriented by their new surroundings. There are so few scenes of Cam playing ball because that’d be far less compelling than watching the Calloways strategize about how to stay grounded as their situation gets more surreal.
In Short: You can catch up on season one in less than three hours and finally have something light and easy with sneaky substance on the weekends besides Last Week Tonight.
By Kenny Herzog/Vulture