Critic's Notebook: 'Survivor's Remorse' Season 2 Finale Takes a Dark Turn
A big cliff-hanger leaves a favorite character in jeopardy on Starz's basketball comedy.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the second-season finale of Survivor's Remorse.]
Survivor's Remorse, which wrapped up its second season Saturday night, has never been shy about tackling serious issues with a smile. This season in particular has been adroit when it comes to landing on a hot target, pushing the required buttons in a way that provoked but never offended and then flitting off to the next target. From domestic violence to HPV to police tensions to the lasting legacy of slavery in the American South, Survivor's Remorse offered brief-but-perceptive glimpses and then only sometimes returned to examine the darker ripples.
M-Chuck (Erica Ash) beating on Cam (Jessie T. Usher) led to community service and counseling and one explosive-but-brief confrontation with mother Cassie (Tichina Arnold), but that's a work-in-progress.
The sexually transmitted virus Cam picked up during his fling with a sexy reporter became a trust exercise when he met all-too-perfect new girlfriend Allison (excellent discovery Meagan Tandy), an episode later, but that's as far as it has gone.
Survivor's Remorse isn't Entourage. Things that happen have consequences on this show, but the consequences have rarely gotten in the way of the high-living core family dynamic at the show's center. Squabbles, embarrassments, seemingly untenable judgment gaffes? They're just temporary impediments to Clan Calloway.
Saturday night's finale concluded with a cliff-hanger that either will or won't be a permanent imposition, and after a season that saw Survivor's Remorse rise to a place among the sharpest, best-written comedies on all of television, I'm at least slightly concerned about the way we left things.
For no reason I can adequately justify, Saturday's episode, titled "Starts and Stops," reminded me of the Sopranos finale, insofar as the sense of looming doom was omnipresent. From the start when Allison announced that her old car was trouble and people kept referring to it as a death trap, it only became a question of who would be in that car at the wrong moment and then what would go wrong.
There was a brief dramatic misdirect when Reggie (RonReaco Lee) went to meet with dangerously clownish and unpredictable DeShauwn (the ubiquitous Allen Maldonado) to return his former client Jupiter (Ser'Darius Blain) when Reggie realized that the future NFL draft pick wasn't worth the effort. One of DeShauwn's boys, Cho-Cho, pointed a gun at Reggie and called him "N-word" and no, not the full version of The N-Word.
As Cho-Cho put it, "Man, I'm trying to improve my language. N-word's a divisive word. Read yourself some Ta-Nehisi Coates."
But that situation, which still included the errant firing of a lone bullet, ended with all parties satisfied and unhurt.
Instead, disaster befell the Callaways when they were driving primarily in Cam's new Escalade, an overblown romantic gift rejected by Allison, with Uncle Julius (Mike Epps) driving Allison's car, the death trap. Uncle Julius made the ill-timed decision to smoke some weed as he was driving and he dropped his pipe. In the process of bending over to pick up the pipe, shades of Mitch Leary dropping his ice cream, Uncle Julius ran a red light and was T-boned by an oncoming truck, flipping the death trap and throwing Uncle Julius out onto the road. The episode concluded with an ominous pull-back from the family gathered in horror around Uncle Julius, whose last words were, "I wish I believed in God."
Going back to the dread-filled signs from earlier in the episode, we probably should have known that something bad was coming for Uncle Julius when Cam asked him for romantic advice and the rarely serious Julius was relatively weighty and avuncular with his romantic advice, amid stories of his own success with the ladies, which apparently tallied in the busloads, and not your normal American single-decker buses.
And we probably should have suspected that if somebody bad were coming for anybody, Uncle Julius would be a plausible target, because Epps came in as probably the biggest star in the Survivor's Remorse cast, and he's been set to topline ABC's remake of Uncle Buck since last spring. Survivor's Remorse hasn't been in production for months, and Epps has had ample time to work on that ABC sitcom, but it was probably inevitable that a choice of some sort would have to be made at some point regarding his ability to be a regular on both a premium cable show and a network show at the same time, a circumstance that isn't unprecedented, but isn't common.
For its part, ABC set Uncle Buck for midseason, and with the unexpected fall success of Dr. Ken, it isn't even clear how many episodes of Uncle Buck will be needed or where they'll be able to air, much less what the show's audience potential is in a season that has seen audiences reject several seemingly established properties and stars with no, pardon the pun, remorse.
I haven't seen Uncle Buck, but let me just say this: If Uncle Buck killed Uncle Julius, I'm going to be disappointed.
I have zero inside information here. Uncle Julius may just have internal injuries, and he could spend a few weeks in the hospital and doing rehab, during which time he might appear only fleetingly in Survivor's Remorse episodes, and then when Uncle Buck is hastily canceled, Epps might return in a full-time capacity in a hypothetical fourth season.
Or Uncle Julius may be dead, and Survivor's Remorse may be forced to deal with it next season. The show's title has always been a stumbling block for viewers. It refers to the guilt that people who have escaped a bad situation feel about extricating themselves from that situation when others did not. But maybe next season will actually be about a more literal survivor's remorse? Although Allison's car wasn't even slightly at fault — other than its general lack of structural integrity, presumably — it's easy to guess that the Allison-Cam relationship would struggle with the recriminations. Even if Uncle Julius ends up being fine, there will still probably be the sort of guilt and blame-placing that could force a breakup.
Survivor's Remorse probably isn't designed to deal with its main character finding new and permanent love. Reggie and Missy (Tayonah Parris) offer one sort of romantic stability, while Cassie's new midlife relationship with Chinese shoe magnate Da Chen Bao (the terrific Robert Wu) has been a treat this season, but that leaves M-Chuck and Cam as unattached polar opposites when it comes to getting coupled up. M-Chuck has no interest in anything long-term, though I adored the episode in which she unexpectedly ended up in bed with the plantation reenactor. And Cam's general aspirations tend to be positive and you can believe he would want to emulate Reggie's stability, but this finale pointed out that the gap between having one night stands and a few dates and actual love can be big, especially when you're still learning to handle newfound wealth, newfound fame and the responsibilities that come with both.
As strong as the relationship between Cam and Allison was this season, adding real prickly rom-com energy to the show's already ample arsenal, she may need to be the girlfriend he returns to in the seventh or eighth season when he's really ready to settle down, rather than forcing domesticity onto the show. And forcing domesticity and grief onto the show? That's a high hurdle for next season to face.
I'll be curious to see how the Survivor's Remorse writers handle the events of the finale, but also excited.
After a first season that could only hint at impressive potential in its six episodes, Survivor's Remorse came instantly and fully into its own this summer. The transition of creator and showrunner Mike O'Malley from a respected character actor (who we knew also wrote) into a wildly fresh and smart comedic voice capable of being hip, intelligent, raunchy and emotional has been especially notable.
The development of the core ensemble has also been fun to watch. Usher flashes likable star power, but also has never been shy about embracing Cam's youthful brattiness. Arnold continues to prove what a great TV comedy weapon she has long been, dating back to Martin and Everybody Hates Chris. Ash gets some of the show's most dangerous dialogue and sells it with a wicked glint in her eye. Lee also revels in taking big mouthfuls of verbiage and making it funny and believable. Parris was perhaps underused this season, but the episode in which she and Jupiter went head-to-head on the Wonderlic test was a favorite. This season also made great recurring use of Chris Bauer and confirmed the comedic upside of executive producer LeBron James, who cameoed as himself.
Mike Epps has been one of the most valuable pieces of the ensemble. I hope the show doesn't lose him, and I hope the cause of that loss isn't Uncle Buck. But Survivor's Remorse had a great enough second season that it earned the right to experiment.