Review: Why ‘Survivor’s Remorse’ should be your Sports ‘Entourage’ of choice

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
10.26.15 29 Comments

Starz

A couple of months ago, as I prepared to tape a radio appearance, the host and I discussed potential topics, and I noted that Starz's basketball comedy “Survivor's Remorse” would have its second season premiere that weekend, and I liked the show a lot.

“I have honestly never heard of that show before,” she told me. And this wasn't someone with a general interest show just doing a segment on television; this was someone who hosts an entire show about television.

I know, I know: Peak TV in America, Starz has always had trouble getting traction with its comedies (RIP, “Party Down”), the title gets across the basic theme of the show (Jessie T. Usher's Cam Calloway feels guilt over making it out of a tough Boston neighborhood to become a pro hoops star) while never conveying what the show is actually about (or that it's a comedy), the cast isn't incredibly famous (though Mike Epps and Tichina Arnold are both recognizable working actors), and if you're looking for Sports “Entourage,” HBO's “Ballers” has The Rock.

So I get it. But still, the show's relative obscurity bums me out, and not just because “Ballers” is so forgettable. “Survivor's Remorse” – which wrapped up its second season over the weekend (all 10 episodes, plus the 6 from season 1, are available for subscribers On Demand and via the Starz Play app) – isn't just the better Sports “Entourage,” but is a much better, funnier, and more perceptive show about the perks and challenges of celebrity than “Entourage” itself was – even back when “Entourage” was vaguely trying (say, circa season 2). It's a well-crafted comedy, on top of all the lifestyle porn aspects, which in this season's penultimate episode included a cameo by the show's producer, LeBron James, in a high-stakes card game featuring Cam's cousin and manager Reggie (RonReaco Lee).

Creator Mike O'Malley and his team have a good sense of the highs and lows of being an out-of-nowhere sports sensation (when Cam goes through a slump early in the season, reporters compare him to Jeremy Lin), and are also savvy enough to never show us a second of Cam actually playing basketball (thus avoiding the “Studio 60” problem, or those times when we were meant to think Vinnie Chase was really a movie star). Season 2 found funny ways to not only deal with hot-button issues in sports – including a pointed riff on recent domestic violence scandals in sports where Cam gets beat up by sister Mary Charles (Erica Ash) – but with larger questions about being black in modern America, even when you're incredibly wealthy and living in a predominantly black city like Atlanta. (While Cam's team is on a road trip, his female relatives visit a plantation recreation, and are dismayed to find actors cheerfully singing slave work songs.)

The show's not perfect – I could have done without yet another story where a female reporter sleeps with a subject – but it's noticeably improved from an already solid first season. Perhaps the best change: the series has gotten much more comfortable pivoting from comedy to drama. It's still the former the great bulk of the time, but when it has a darker moment – like the episode where Cam, isolated for once from his friends and family, fears he's suffered a career-ending knee injury, or when Uncle Julius (Mike Epps) is witness to an act of police brutality (on a white victim) – it feels like it's all part of the same show. And when things turn out okay for him there, or in other areas, it never comes across like a cheat or the lazy way out; there are actual narrative stakes, and the show puts in the work to get from Point A to Point B.

(Finale spoilers coming up, so if you're intending to catch up, you can safely stop here.) 

The finale, written by O'Malley and directed by Pete Segal, ended on a particularly dark note, with Julius being badly injured, and possibly killed, in an accident while driving the beat-up old car of Cam's girlfriend Allison (Meagan Tandy). It's a bit of a hedge: Mike Epps is due to star in ABC's “Uncle Buck” this season, and if that show's a hit, he may be unavailable to come back to “Survivor's Remorse,” and it makes no sense in the context of Cam and Julius's relationship for Julius to disappear from his life. If “Uncle Buck” doesn't work out, maybe Julius is doing physical therapy when season 3 begins; if not, it's a reminder that fame and fortune doesn't insulate you from tragedy, and it adds more weight to that title.

Even if it's still a pretty poor name for the show.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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