Call it the Blind Side principle: You know you’ve got a hit on your hands when a sports doofus (like this writer) volunteers to recap a comedy series about a basketball player and his outrageous but lovable family. (The football-centric film that won Sandra Bullock the Oscar is one of my favorites.)
Survivor’s Remorse may be a show centered on a talented athlete, but the whole sports component is just a backdrop. One of the signature elements of the LeBron James-produced comedy, which premiered its second season tonight on Starz, is you never see protagonist Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher) on the court playing a game. Because that’s not what the show is about. Showrunner Mike O’Malley (Kurt Hummel’s dad on Glee) has created a whip-smart series that has earned its place as one of the sharpest comedies on TV right now. O’Malley opts to explore the more important—and more interesting—aspects of Cam’s life, i.e. off the court. While money does make your existence a lot more cushy, especially for someone coming from the Boston projects, life’s problems are still right around the corner, ready to sneak up behind you when you least expect it.
So thank heaven that if we have to watch a family dealing with these kinds of curveballs, at least it’s the enduringly funny, politically incorrect Calloways, who are back to wreak havoc on their wealthy new lifestyle. And we get courtside seats for all of it.
Right off the bat, the second season begins with the Calloway family moving on up. Again. But where do you go when you get too big for your deluxe apartment in the sky? Try a sprawling, palatial mansion in a tony Atlanta neighborhood. In typical Calloway fashion, the move wasn’t so much an upgrade as it was the result of the clan’s shenanigans. As Cam’s sister, Mary Charles, a.k.a. “M-Chuck” (Erica Ash), proudly exposits, “If I hadn’t accidentally launched that lawn chair off your roof deck, your condo association would’ve never kicked us out, and we would’ve never moved here to Calloway Castle.” For those of you not familiar with Survivor’s Remorse yet (the entire six-episode debut season is available for free on Starz.com until August 25th), this is your first lesson in the Calloway mindset: Never apologize for something when you can brag about it instead.
Also coming out swinging in the season premiere? Mike Epps as Cam and M-Chuck’s cringe-worthy, but no less hilarious, Uncle Julius. This is a man who, within the same conversation, spouts AIDS jokes about Cam’s boss (team owner Jimmy Flaherty—True Blood‘s Chris Bauer) and makes inappropriate comments about his nephew Reggie’s (RonReaco Lee) wife, Missy (Mad Men‘s Teyonah Parris)—to Reggie’s face: “I bet that she wears you out. Mmm-hmm-hmm,” he says, mid-ogle.
But Survivor’s Remorse is not only about pushing the boundaries of humor—which it’s been doing with aplomb since its stellar first season. It’s also a pointed commentary on the role of athlete as commodity, asking questions like, “How much of your personal life should you sacrifice for a paycheck in the millions range?”
NEXT: Bowling for Dummies[pagebreak]
In tonight’s episode, Cam begins to chafe under the personal appearances his max deal requires of him. And despite his petulant refrain that he’s a “grown-ass man” (hence the title of the episode), Cam does offer up a convincing argument for why she shouldn’t have to glad-hand VIPs (read: drunk white people criticizing his free-throws) at bowling events: These contractually obligated meet-and-greets take away from time he could spend resting (imperative for athletes) and working hard at his game. “I’ve got to fill my hours with real work, hard work,” he pleads with his cousin and manager Reggie. “It’s the only thing keeping me from f—ing this whole thing up.” Yes, Cam means the upscale lifestyle when he refers to “this whole thing,” as he demonstrates by opening his arms, but he’s also referring to how he single-handedly pulled his family out of the projects. He’ll work himself to the bone before he sees his loved ones, particularly his single mom, Cassie (Tichina Arnold), back in their old Boston neighborhood.
Survivor’s Remorse also gets the audience on Team Cam by showing the dark—but still painfully funny— side of those VIP events, where Cam has an iPhone thrust into his hands and is directed to tell the person on the other end of the call to stop using heroin. But the iPhone owner isn’t even the most loathsome VIP Cam comes across in this scene. It’s a toss-up between the basketball fanatic who is so determined to get a photo of Cam with his kids that he tells his son, who’s been throwing up all day, “If you get sick, just swallow,” and the woman who jumps onto Cam’s back and demands a ride.
So when Cam bails on the party early, and snubs his boss, Flaherty, in the process, his actions may be foolish, but they are understandable. A passive-aggressive back-and-forth ensues between the two men (Flaherty takes away Cam’s parking space, Cam signs a basketball “indentured servant”), culminating in Cam’s woefully misguided protest in the form of backing out on a Nelson Mandela gala. This spurs Flaherty to leave the soirée and visit Cam at home, and it’s here we see—and with hope, Cam sees—that maybe his boss isn’t such a bad guy after all. Because it’s not just Cam who has to put on a show for VIPs every now and then—Flaherty does too, as evidenced by the purple dashiki and matching hat he begrudgingly wore for the event. “I look ridiculous,” admits the Irish-American Flaherty. “The Nelson Mandela Organization asked me to wear it, so here I am, wearing it. Sometimes grown-ass men get to do things they don’t want to do.”
NEXT: “We’ve Only Just Begun”[pagebreak]
Flaherty goes on to empathize with Cam’s feelings about having to attend these “s—show” types of events, but at the same time, he reminds his star player that he does have his best interests at heart, so next time he shouldn’t be so quick to blow folks off. Folks like “people who can expand [Cam’s] business off the court. I know what you aspire to,” says Flaherty. “I believe in you.” Which is why Cam should give his boss the benefit of the doubt when Flaherty wants to introduce him to people. When he snubbed his team’s owner at the bowling event, Cam also wound up giving the cold shoulder to a guy who beat cancer by sticking to his workout regimen.
But let’s also not forget how many millions of dollars Cam is pulling in with his deal, so Flaherty has a point when he says, “One night a year, the folks who buy the tickets that pay your salary have a right to be all over you.”
Having reached a truce, Cam agrees to join Flaherty at the Nelson Mandela gala, already in progress. Survivor’s Remorse then closes out its outstanding Season Two premiere episode by reminding its audience that no one is safe from its skewering brand of humor, not even Mandela himself (I have to wonder if this scene was inspired by the “Giant of Africa” event held in Mandela’s honor by the Toronto Raptors in 2014): Cam and Flaherty bond even further over the evening’s baffling entertainment decisions (a kiddie choir singing the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun“) and a giant painting that features the South African leader on a basketball court. It’s no better time for an embarrassed Flaherty to remind Cam that it’s incidents like this one that forces him to micromanage things. Think about what would happen if he didn’t do that at all.
- For much of Season One, Teyonah Parris’s character Missy Vaughn (Reggie’s business-school educated wife) was relegated to the plot outskirts as Survivor’s Remorse focused on the Calloways’ acclimation to their new-money upgrade. But Missy took center court in the Season Two premiere by shattering social expectations in two powerful ways. First, she quite literally smashed an archaic lawn jockey left behind by the previous owners of the Calloways’ mansion. Second, following in the footsteps of the actress who portrays her, Missy has an epiphany while in a hair salon, and decides to stop chemically relaxing her hair (and if there’s anyone out there not convinced to go the natural-hair route, just check out Parris’s Instagram feed). As she explains to Reggie through tears later, having arrived home with a starkly different short crop on her head, “I’m sick of forcing myself to accept another ethnicity’s ideal.” Missy’s decision is to be applauded—which it is, with Reggie offering love and support as Missy comes to grips with what she’s done—but that doesn’t mean she’s immune from the Survivor’s Remorse comedy treatment either. For the Nelson Mandela event, Missy goes full-on Winnie Mandela, complete with a gorgeous rainbow-colored head wrap. This prompts the outspoken Julius to make the following observation: “That look like a bag of Skittles on your head.”