Sunday, October 22, 2017

Leading with Love: Reflections on the End of Survivor’s Remorse

Mike Epps, Tichina Arnold, RonReaco Lee, Jessie T. Usher,  Teyonah Parris and Erica Ash in Starz's Survivor's Remorse.

Deshauwn: When Cam hit and all the big agency vultures started circling, how'd you keep your boy?
Reggie: I did my job.
Deshauwn: That's it?
Reggie: That's it.
Deshauwn: I feel like I should be paying you or something for dropping all these gems, man . . . You want some cocaine?
Survivor’s Remorse, “One-Love” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Last Sunday, Starz aired the final two episodes of the fourth season of Survivor’s Remorse – five days after the cable network announced the show’s cancellation. After four increasingly strong seasons, the LeBron James-produced and Mike O’Malley-created rags-to-riches pro-basketball dramedy came to an abrupt end. The series premiered in 2014, but chances are that you have never heard of it – or, if you have, you may have (like myself) been long put off by its unrevealing title. But if you have been watching, news of its cancellation will have gutted you – and not only because the ad hoc series finale left numerous storylines hanging. Ballsy, insidiously provocative, and philosophically inclined, Survivor’s Remorse just may have been the smartest show on television.

Survivor’s Remorse tells the story of Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher), a young basketball player who jumps from obscurity and poverty to national-celebrity status overnight after he signs a multi-million-dollar deal to play for an Atlanta-based pro team. Suddenly flush beyond all expectation, Cam leaves his multi-ethnic Boston neighbourhood of Dorchester behind for black-majority Atlanta with his family in tow – bringing along his brassy, outspoken mother Cassie (Tichina Arnold, Everybody Loves Chris); his impulsive older sister Mary Charles, aka M-Chuck (Erica Ash), whose matter-of-fact sexuality is a constant delight; his stoner-savant Uncle Julius (Mike Epps); and his cousin and manager Reggie (RonReaco Lee) and Reggie's wife Missy (Teyonah Parris). Adding to the mix is a wide ensemble cast, including Robert Wu as Cassie’s Chinese billionaire paramour and Chris Bauer as team owner Jimmy Flaherty. I can’t speak to the accuracy of its portrayal of professional basketball culture, except to say that it is regularly compelling, but ultimately Remorse is as much about basketball as Friday Night Lights is about high school football. I came to the series late, only picking it up earlier this year, expecting a Ballers-like guilty pleasure. It is, I have to stress, nothing of the sort.

While the above description will certainly call up visions of Entourage, the surface similarities to Ballers and Entourage stop right there – at the surface. Acclimated to the schadenfreude of shows like Entourage, with its subtle contempt for its own characters, which relied on our collective enthrallment to and ambivalence towards celebrity culture, I tuned into Survivor’s Remorse expecting more of the same – anticipating story lines centred on characters regularly failing for succeeding. But Remorse undercuts those expectations right at the gate. In the pilot’s first minutes, at his press conference unveiling, we watch Cam walk up to the podium and wait (anxiously) for him to embarrass himself. But he immediately rises to the occasion – young, yes, but also poised, passionate and present, he thanks his mom and his family, breaking into tears as he reflects on how he got onto that stage. Cam deserves his success, and he’s grateful for it. And the people that follow him to Atlanta aren’t hangers-on or parasites, but his true heart.

As for the show’s regrettable title (meaningful and powerful if you are already watching the series, and utterly uninviting if you are not), it remains Survivor's Remorse's operative theme throughout its run – albeit on a slow burn. The early seasons document Cam’s internal guilt for having gotten out of Dorchester. Big-hearted and often naïve to a fault, Cam, much to the dismay of the more pragmatic Reggie, wants to give back to everyone he left behind long before his own star has firmly risen. (Despite the show’s premise, Survivor’s Remorse is a less a fish-out-of-water story than a story of a fish that keeps returning to the pond to unsuccessfully lift up the fishes he left behind – or as Reggie puts in early this past season, “Cam's well-intentioned patronage to other people's ill-advised dreams.”) But as the rich extended cast of characters get developed, the meaning of the phrase becomes more (and justifiably) psychologically nuanced – with the traumas these characters carry being far less socio-economic and much more personal (absent or abusive fathers, sexual violence, and sudden deaths among them).

RonReaco Lee and Jessie T. Usher in Survivor's Remorse.

Cam’s sudden fame and celebrity might be the catalyst, but the series attends to the diverse and difficult journey each of the characters is on, existential crises big and small. Each, on their own and together, is struggling powerfully and honestly with the challenge of living a meaningful life: whether it's his mother Cassie’s late-life return to faith, or M-Chuck’s difficult insights from her involuntary therapy sessions, or Reggie’s ongoing efforts to break out of Cam’s shadow and support him unconditionally at the same time. And that Survivor’s Remorse succeeds in telling these stories, without melodrama or sentimentality, and awash with near-poetic profanity-laden monologues, is a perennially pleasurable surprise. (You’d have to reach back all the way to Deadwood to find more profanely articulate characters.)

For me, the show really clicked with a passing exchange (quoted above) from the middle of the second season. The dialogue takes places at the foot of a strip-club stage, and Reggie is trying (and failing) to explain what is at the heart of his recent career successes – “I did my job,” he reports plainly. His big secret is that when he makes commitments, he follows through on them. Does that mean Reggie always succeeds? Hardly. But in a split second, the power of the series was plain. It's a unique admixture of broad comedy, social issues, and the challenges of leading a life with integrity and moral courage (which all comes together in a fascinating second-season story line involving Cam's discovering he was exposed to HPV).

One of the great strengths of the series is that it has no clear moral centre – no bad guys or villains, just different perspectives butting up against one another. In the interpersonal storylines – whether they are sibling tensions or the swear-a-thon kitchen battles between M-Chuck and Cassie – everyone on Survivor’s Remorse gets the chance to get their ‘truth’ validated and challenged, often simultaneously. Inevitably, as passionate reaction turns to dialogue, indignation turns to rapprochement . . . but never consensus. (Here the closest current parallel would be to The Carmichael Show, a comedy of comparable ambition, albeit of a very different sort.) It is the same tack the show takes on the social issues it raises, and on that point the writers are as audaciously ambitious as the characters they write. Over the course of its four seasons, Survivor’s Remorse has taken on more issues than can be recounted here, including poverty, celebrity culture, domestic abuse, corporate culture, privatized prisons, and racial tensions. And despite its often glorious tendency to speechifying – the sheer audacity of which often leaves me shaking my head in wonder and glee – it succeeds in doing so without didacticism because it stages those conversations with no clear victor.

Still, as with the Calloways themselves, sometimes that ambition comes to bite the series in the ass; when you go out on a limb, sometimes the branch breaks. (See last season’s, and perhaps the series’, least successful and most ill-conceived episode with – believe it or not! – a subplot involving female genital mutilation.) But just as often, that audacity pays off – as with this season’s episode which has M-Chuck facing off against a Jewish benefactor (played by the always-welcome Saul Rubinek) of a new “Museum of African-American Life,” which he ostentatiously branded with his own name.

It is a rare television series that, even as they put them through hell, never gives any doubt how much the writers love its characters. Survivor’s Remorse was one of those shows – and I will miss it. I invite you to watch its four seasons so you can mourn its end too.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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