To describe the new Starz comedy “Survivor's Remorse” as “NBA Entourage” sounds at once accurate and dismissive. Accurate because it's a show about a twentysomething phenom sharing his fame and fortune with his closest friends and family, dismissive because the actual “Entourage” was pretty horrible by the end.
But “Entourage” was entertaining before it became bloated and self-congratulatory and contemptuous of its own fans. And its laziness prevented it from thoroughly exploring all those questions about the intersection of family and celebrity, and of staying true to your roots even as you have the money and opportunity to do things you couldn't even dream of growing up.
There's a ton of untapped potential in the idea, as demonstrated by the four episodes of “Survivor's Remorse” (it debuts tomorrow at 9 p.m.) that I've seen.
Created by Mike O'Malley(*) – a sports fan who, when he's not acting, is a writer on Showtime's terrific “Shameless” – the series follows Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher), a once-unheralded point guard who has taken the NBA by storm and landed a huge free agent contract in Atlanta. Now he has the money to bring his mother Cassie (Tichina Arnold), sister Mary-Charles, aka M-Chuck (Erica Ash), cousin Reggie (RonReaco Lee) and Uncle Julius (Mike Epps) along for the ride, even as Reggie (who, E-style, acts as his business manager) is trying to keep him from burning through his newfound fortune in a hurry.
(*) Non-writing producers include Boston Red Sox part owner (and '80s sitcom titan) Tom Werner, sports management power broker Maverick Carter, and a fella you may have heard of by the name of LeBron James. Cam – who went to college (albeit an obscure one that couldn't even help him get drafted by the pros) – has no more resemblance to LeBron than Vinnie Chase did to Mark Wahlberg.
The first episode, like a lot of series premieres, gets weighed down with too much exposition and statement of theme. A run-in with an old friend they left behind in the 'hood allows Cam to give a big speech that justifies the show's title, explaining the guilt he feels for escaping this terrible place. It's darker and less funny than the show is in the remaining episodes, but it provides a useful foundation for what follows.
With episode 2, O'Malley couldn't be more unintentionally timely, as Cassie stirs up a controversy when she does an interview acknowledging the violent methods she used to discipline Cam as a boy. Later episodes deal with a Make-A-Wish visit gone awry – complete with the dying boy pointing out the phoniness of the whole endeavor – Cam struggling to find a church that won't condemn M-Chuck for being gay, and Reggie's wife Missy (Teyona Parris, unrecognizable from her role as Dawn in “Mad Men”) pushing him to join a historical black country club.
The makeup of the cast gives O'Malley and his writers license to deal incisively with race as well as class, and the show carefully walks a thin comic line that lets Cam's relatives be unprepared for the new lives he's giving them without letting them come across as moochers. (Though if Uncle Julius wants to chat up the many attractive women who want to get with his nephew, so be it…)
It's not wildly funny in the early going, but there's a sense of confidence in the material, the tone and the world, and the creative team doesn't ask you to buy into things that aren't necessary. “Entourage” would occasionally give us examples of Vinnie's acting, and it did not suggest the talent or charisma to make him one of the world's biggest stars. Through the first four episodes, at least, “Survivor's Remorse” doesn't once ask its leading man to play basketball, and only once even puts him on a court at a local playground, just to give the dying kid some dunking advice.
Starz CEO Chris Albrecht famously ran HBO during its golden period of “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “The Wire,” et al., and when he came to this new job, he first tried to duplicate his past successes with pale imitations like “Boss” and “Magic City.” “Entourage” was another hit developed on his watch, and if it never became remotely as good as the classics of Albrecht's tenure, its unfulfilled potential made it more ripe to be copied and improved upon. As “Battlestar Galactica” once demonstrated, a remake can't improve on a masterpiece, but can do very well in adapting a work that had good ideas but didn't use them well. “Survivor's Remorse” isn't an exact replica of “Entourage,” but the ways in which the two shows are similar all wind up flattering the newcomer.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org