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The STARZ cable network did its damnedest to make its mark this year in terms of its original series content. While it all but seemed like HBO would have 2014 in a chokehold like usual – what with “True Detective” emerging as one of the most darkly sinister yet irresistible surprises on cable and mainstays “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Newsroom” heading into their series finales, and with Showtime’s “House of Lies” and “Homeland” lacking the luster they had in earlier seasons – STARZ emerged with two major new series executive produced by Black people. The first was 50 Cent’s “POWER,” which premiered in January and presented a compelling tale of a drug dealer living a double life and struggling to balance his personal life with legitimate aspirations and old flame temptations.

But it’s the second series, the LeBron James-executive produced “Survivor’s Remorse,” which proved to be the most vital – if not one of the most slept-on – additions to fall television.

What STARZ does better than its competition, is present its serialized shows in a sort of limited series format. The USA Network (through “Burn Notice” and “Suits”), ABC (with “Scandal”), and now NBC (with “The Blacklist”) have tinkered with this concept through the use of “fall finales,” that serve as conclusions to one story arc before setting off the second-half of a given season. STARZ doesn’t require all that. Instead, it hits viewers with weekly episodes and its seasons are shorter – usually tapering off at about 10 or 11 episodes, where the standard has emerged to about 17 episodes in a given dramatic series season – making it critical to watch every episode so you don’t miss anything, and causing viewers to invest in the characters much more quickly.

I was initially attracted to “Survivor’s Remorse” because of its early trailers. Before cast members were ever announced to the public formally, STARZ had rolled out teaser previews of the series to come, showing barren basketball courts in the hood and blasting statistics about the extremely low transition rate of hoopers who successfully make it from college to the NBA. Comedian Mike O’Malley (aka the host of Nickelodeon’s forever great old-school series “GUTS”) was the series creator as well. I thought we were going to get a documentary.

So when “Remorse’s” official trailer debuted two months ago, I was thrown for a loop. I hadn’t been expecting a comedy. Nor had I expected my first introduction to be protagonist Cam Calloway (portrayed by actor Jessie T. Usher in a breakout role) blurting out “Mom, thank you for not aborting me!” at a press conference. Then the trailer introduced us to Cam’s family on a plane, and the mere presence of Mike Epps and Tichina Arnold had me convinced this would be just another situational comedy.

Boy, was I proven wrong.

Where most basketball-based movies and series focus on the game itself and even show the players putting in work on the court, “Survivor’s Remorse” does not. Instead, it gives viewers a glimpse into the other literal side of the game – the business deals, the moochers, the consequences, and the responsibility that comes with being an athlete in the spotlight. Cam Calloway is the million-dollar man, having been given a blockbuster deal and a fresh start for a fictional basketball team in Atlanta. The series’ first season takes place in the summer before Cam’s first season with his new team, and as a result, we never see Cam play basketball (save for one sequence set up where Cam tries to show charity and kindness to a terminally-ill child on a twist of the “Make A Wish” foundation).

What we see instead, is a man who’s ever haunted by his past even as he’s trying to set himself up for the future. He has to navigate a new sneaker deal. He has to keep his image clean and so seeks out a church in Atlanta and appeals to his mother to take back her comments on spankings. He has to address mistakes made when he was younger. And he has to find a balance between giving back and helping childhood friends.

survivor's remorse church

Cam understandably keeps his circle small, relying on his mother Cassie, his Uncle Julius, his cousin Reggie (played by an alumnus of multiple sitcoms, RonReaco Lee), and his sister Mary Charles (played by shining-star newcomer Erica Ash). In so doing, it allows viewers to more easily invest in each member of the family and their given dilemmas when they come up. Mary Charles is an outspoken and crafty lesbian character who’s clearly her wisecracking mother’s child; and Tichina Arnold turns Cassie into everything Pam from “Martin” couldn’t be on broadcast television and then some.

Reggie, as Cam’s financial adviser and essentially his PR person, has some of the more layered storylines in the first season. Viewers soon learn that Reggie is from the hood like Cam is, and has spent his adult life rebranding and rebuilding himself into something more professional, especially with his wife (“Mad Men” and Dear White People star Teyonah Parris). This comes to a head twice in the first season: first, when Reggie is trying to gain membership in an elite Black golf club and unintentionally ruins his chances by joking around with “Inside the NBA’s” Ernie Johnson (in a hilarious cameo). And secondly, when Reggie is approached by his ex-flame in the midst of negotiating Cam’s sneaker deal. He does so much to keep Cam’s image pristine, that he sometimes forgets to manage his own.

The smaller storylines, while not as memorable, make the other members of the cast stand out as more than just bit pieces. Mary Charles’s sexuality becomes an issue when Cam is seeking out his new church; and Cam’s attempt to ultimately bribe the pastor into his accepting his sister into the congregation horribly backfires into a hilarious (yet also disappointing) rant at the following Sunday’s service. Mary Charles emerges as the hustler of the family, constantly coming up with quick fixes that sometimes work (taking a desperate measure to please the Make-A-Wish patient… one where he gets a peek but the viewer is actually robbed of the pleasure) and sometimes don’t (such as the hilarious attempt to guilt-trip a homeowner into thinking her family owned the Calloways’ slave ancestors). Mike Epps, as Uncle Julius, fully embraces his ain’t shitness, taking advantage of the fact that women have to “get through him to get to Cam” as a way to “taste test” potential prospects (and I thank Epps immensely for introducing me to the glorious breasts acting of Khaneshia Smith). However, Uncle Julius has moments of wisdom, too, even if they’re often lost amongst his more outlandish comments and behavior.

All of the credit can’t be given solely to James and O’Malley as executive producer and series creator. Head writers Sascha Penn, Raphael Jackson Jr., Jerome Hairston, Victor Levin, Damione Macedon, and Tracey Oliver must be acknowledged for infusing each of the first season’s six episodes with a sparkling wit and the occasional quotable.

survivor's remorse cast

The one thing it always comes back to in “Survivor’s Remorse,” however, is being true to who you are. Sometimes the past will come creeping right back – Romeo Miller proves this in his own cameo, where he essentially tries to make a play at Cam and Reggie to give him a shot at getting on the Atlanta basketball team; as does Reggie’s ex, who we learn has a connection to Cam himself. In the series premiere alone, a circumstance occurs where Cam must go back to his old neighborhood and is confronted with this idea of remembering where you come from.

And that, if nothing else, is why we needed “Survivor’s Remorse.” Because it reminds us that you have to find that balance between never forgetting your roots, and not letting your roots keep you from growing. STARZ has thankfully renewed the series for a second season. One can only hope that it continues to build on this concept in 2015 and showing us the other side of what professional athletes must deal with, outside of the spotlight.