'Survivor's Remorse' Season 3: TV Review

Survivor's Remorse - H 2016
Jackson Lee Davis/Starz
Still smart, provocative and a great ensemble.

The fate of Uncle Julius hangs in the balance as Starz's terrific basketball comedy returns on Sunday.

When we left, things were looking bad for Uncle Julius. He'd gone to live with his brother and sister-in-law, or maybe his sister and brother-in-law, and their three kids, drained of his lewd energy to become just a pawn in a subpar domestic sitcom. Initially the public response was positive, but that support quickly vanished and the whole family got the axe.

Sorry. I was thinking of Uncle Buck.

When we left Mike Epps' Uncle Julius on Starz's Survivor's Remorse, he was actually even worse off. A horrifying car crash left him clinging to life and, depending on how you viewed the final shot of the second season, possibly losing that fight.

Damn you, Uncle Buck! DAMN YOU!

While I'll respect a desire for secrecy, it seems OK to tell you that Uncle Julius' fate is not a long-term mystery in the third season of Survivor's Remorse, premiering on Sunday (July 24) night. It also isn't a short-term impediment for the characters in the underrated basketball-friendly series, which continues to solidify its place as one of the cleverest, profane, most provocative comedies on TV. Infusing the darkness from the accident's aftermath — darkness which would be there if Uncle Julius finds himself in extended recovery or is no longer with us — forces series creator Mike O'Malley and a fine team of writers and directors to figure out how to keep the show's humor and family heart intact, while also addressing material that's hard to laugh at.

Starz is wisely bringing Survivor's Remorse back with a two-episode premiere, because the experiment in tone takes some beats to get settled and while I may not have been sure after 10 minutes if it was worth the effort, after a full hour I was impressed with what the creative team had accomplished and especially impressed with how the great ensemble cast shifted gears between heightened drama and O'Malley's usual verbose, obscenity-punctuated prose. If Survivor's Remorse were airing on HBO, it would have gotten multiple writing Emmy nominations in recent years and we would discussing O'Malley in the same breath as Mike Judge and Armando Iannucci/Dave Mandel.

As it stands, we should be talking about O'Malley in the same company of Kenya Barris and Jerrod Carmichael, because Survivor's Remorse is part of a new wave of comedies unafraid to tackle the most sensitive of racial and socio-economic topics and with the freedom of premium cable, Survivor's Remorse often is able to go even further. I point to last season's "A Time to Punch," with its look at domestic violence, and "The Date," with a tight B-story on police profiling, for just a couple examples of how the Survivor's Remorse mindset works. New episodes look at standards of beauty in the African-American community, "thank you" note etiquette and at least one touchy subject that may top last season's vaginal rejuvenation episode for unblinking comic sensitivity. The first two seasons had standout Apology episodes focusing on what one character now calls our "Age of Umbrage" and this season's fourth episode may be the best approach to apology culture yet.

Survivor's Remorse continues to have basketball as its backdrop, but my sense is that Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher) is spending less time talking about his on-court exploits than in seasons past. At least in the six episodes I've seen, basketball is rarely a major plotpoint, even to the degree that last season was driven by Reggie's (RonReaco Lee) push into sports management and the impact of Cam's injuries. Instead, the remorse of the show's title becomes more literal with Cam wondering about the negative side of his fame, while Reggie continues to try to push his way into Atlanta's upper crust, M-Chuck (Erica Ash) finally gets around to the therapy she was ducking last year and Cassie (Tichina Arnold) takes an interest in her heritage with unexpected consequences.

The first half of this season is also investing in interesting relationship dynamics. Teyonah Parris, who had a breakout last year with Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, was maybe underused in the second season, but the Reggie-Missy marriage is much more at the forefront and there are moments, especially in the standout third and fifth episodes, in which their honest communication-of-equals was bracingly real. The still evolving romance between Cassie and Robert Wu's Da Chen Bao continues to build as a really interesting take on love-at-a-certain-age. Cam's budding romance with Meagan Tandy's Allison also is in flux in fruitful ways and, while it's wholly platonic, a bond forms with M-Chuck and team owner Jimmy (Chris Bauer).

Survivor's Remorse doesn't restrict its stars to anything one-dimension and it's fun watching Usher, Arnold and Lee thrive with the season's raw emotional nerves and to see Ash continue to be a breakout as we learn what makes M-Chuck tick. Parris keeps showing she's Lee's equal when it comes to O'Malley's juicier monologues and Bauer's careful deployment is one of the show's secrets. Several new characters add laughs on the periphery and look out for Jaleel White in a one-episode supporting role that may ignite an Urkelaissance.

With BoJack Horseman on Friday and Survivor's Remorse on Sunday, this is a week of third season returns for little shows that probably don't get the attention they deserve, but warrant whatever time you might dedicate to catching up. It's especially easy to get up to speed on Survivor's Remorse, which aired only six episodes in its first season and 10 in its second. That's practically a mini-binge by today's standards and it's worth it for a show this smart and audacious.

Cast: Jessie T. Usher, RonReaco Lee, Erica Ash, Teyonah Parris, Tichina Arnold
Creator: Mike O'Malley
Airs: Sundays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Starz)