Describing a work of art as “the black version” of another work is usually bad business. It’s lazy and reductive, and is typically used to impute inferiority to a superficial difference. But if there is such a thing as an emergency in which such language must be used, the Starz comedy Survivor’s Remorse would constitute such an occasion.
Remorse is about the high life of Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher), a pro basketball player so prodigious as to stoke a national media frenzy when he signs with a new team, not unlike LeBron James, who serves as an executive producer. Despite its baller pedigree, Remorse makes it easy to completely forget about its basketball backdrop. In the premiere, after Cam signs a lucrative contract to play for Atlanta, the particulars of his professional transition are given short shrift. There are no meetings with his coach, no drills with his team, and no talk of stats, injuries, or league scuttlebutt. Remorse is a show around basketball, but not a show about basketball.
In fact, Remorse is usually not even about Cam. It’s about the planets in Cam’s orbit, the trusted associates whose prominence in Cam’s life affords them lives just as luxurious and charmed, but with none of the toil and responsibility sitting on Cam’s toned shoulders. Remorse is about the people whose lives have changed forever by virtue of their proximity to the blast radius when Cam’s basketball career exploded. To put it another way—because this is an emergency—Remorse is the black Entourage.
The description is more of a compliment than it seems, especially given Entourage’s sharp decline in quality after long overstaying its welcome. Remorse offers the same kind of wish fulfillment, but tweaked to the tastes of young black men who long for a Vincent Chase to call their own. It’s set in Atlanta, arguably the foremost American city for the black bourgeoisie and aspirants to it, and there’s no foreplay before its wealth porn or groupie worship. The opening shot is of Atlanta’s skyline, as Cam makes an offer on a well-appointed penthouse suite, and not long after, Cam and a nameless beauty are, ahem, celebrating his success.
If Remorse sounds especially skewed toward men, that’s because it is, but there’s a twist to the setup: Cam’s inner-circle is not composed of hometown hooligans he’s chosen as brothers, but his actual family. Cam’s mother, Cassie (Tichina Arnold), his uncle, Julius (Mike Epps) and his sister, Mary Charles (Erica Ash) are his clique, and he prides himself on being able to pay them handsome salaries for doing nothing at all. The show most differentiates itself through this family dynamic, draping the fame fantasy over what would otherwise be a traditional black family sitcom.
Adding Cam’s family to his world of excess makes for strange bedfellows—in some cases literally, with Uncle Julius all too eager to bed the groupies Cam can’t get to. At the head of the table is Cam’s cousin, Reggie (RonReaco Lee), the CEO of Cam’s burgeoning empire, ostensibly modeled after James’ business partner Maverick Carter, who also serves as an executive producer. Reggie is the only member of the family with an understanding that even eight-digit money is a finite resource and can be exhausted through one too many capricious choices. Cam’s universe is largely free of conflict, but Reggie is its closest thing to a villain, only because his miserly ways threaten to puncture the family’s glitzy fantasy.
While Cassie, Julius, and Mary Charles give Reggie hell, Reggie’s biggest obstacle is Cam, who can’t overcome his sense of obligation to take care of the people he left behind when the family decamped to Atlanta from Boston’s rough-and-tumble Dorchester neighborhood. The show’s title is an albatross, unwieldy and hard to abbreviate, but it is thematically apt, reflecting Cam’s struggle to accept that while his success exists at the nexus of hard work and tremendous luck, he doesn’t owe anyone a handout or an apology.
Class consciousness is one of Remorse’s most interesting elements, with Cam’s family happy to take on the blessed problems of the nouveau riche, while Cam is as blessed by the sudden wealth as he is cursed. In one episode, Jay (Romeo Miller), Cam’s former high school teammate, shows up in Atlanta following his early release from prison. Jay is the type of guy Reggie takes pride in rebuffing, as Reggie views his job of keeping opportunists out of Cam’s purview. But Cam is furious when he finds out Reggie ignored Jay’s request. Cam doesn’t see people like Jay as worms crawling out of the woodwork, he sees them as desperate people for whom he’s a perfectly valid path to a better position.
None of this feels as heavy as it sounds, thanks to creator Mike O’Malley, who lends Remorse the same acidic, irreverent tone he brought to another off-kilter family show, Shameless. O’Malley, the former Shameless staffer responsible for its funniest scripts, brings the same liveliness and ping-pong dialogue to Remorse. When Reggie’s wife, Missy (Teyonah Parris), complains about the move to Atlanta, she says someone should “burn it down, like Sherman did.” “What did Richard Sherman do now?” says Reggie. Like O’Malley’s work elsewhere, the comedy can occasionally go too broad, as is the case when Mary Charles, whose lesbian sexuality is her most prominent trait, is rebuffed by an intolerant church Cam is considering.
But Remorse has a certain shambling charm, and gives the impression in its six-episode taste test that by its second season (Starz has renewed it for another 10 episodes) it could become one of pay-cable’s funniest, most unique comedies, and pull an audience beyond its target demographic. The show initially relies too heavily on plots in which Cam’s career is imperiled by the family’s behavior, plots that come off as contrivances to give the family deeper roots in Cam’s world. But Remorse finds its sea legs once it realizes Cam’s family can afford to stand on its own, whether they realize it or not.