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Survivor’s Remorse talks about money unlike any other show on TV

The Starz comedy examines all the things having money changes — and all the things it doesn't.

Few TV shows talk about money as well as Survivor's Remorse, Starz's family comedy about a basketball phenom turning pro, does.
Few TV shows talk about money as well as Survivor's Remorse, Starz's family comedy about a basketball phenom turning pro, does.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. The episode of the week for October 18 through 24, 2015, is the second season finale of Survivor's Remorse, titled "Starts and Stops."

Survivor's Remorse, Starz's terrific family comedy about a young basketball player's move to the pros, is about a great many things.

It's about familial bonds, and how indestructible they truly are. It's about race in America, how black people and white people relate to each other even when they all have considerable sums of money and class isn't an issue. It's even, as the A.V. Club's Joshua Alston has convincingly argued, about the sexual and reproductive health of women.

But most of all, it's about money — how money changes and warps things, in both good and bad ways. It's about how having money essentially forces you into being a certain kind of person, and it's about how money can't save everybody, no matter how much you might try.

But it's also about the things money can't change, things like love, family, and death.

Money can't buy me love — but it doesn't hurt

Cam and Allison on Survivor's Remorse.
Cam (Jessie T. Usher) is smitten with a young woman from an entirely different economic bracket.

For the last four episodes of its second season, Survivor's Remorse shifted into a romantic comedy, largely out of nowhere. Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher), the young basketball phenom whose rise to the pros buoyed his family from a downtrodden neighborhood right into an Atlanta-area mansion, went to the hospital after believing he'd grievously injured his knee, possibly jeopardizing his career.

He hadn't. But in the process of having tests done, he met a nurse named Allison (Meagan Tandy) and found himself smitten. What was impressive was the way the show went all in on this relationship, putting a lot of weight on the shoulders of Allison, a character it had literally just introduced. But Tandy was charming, and the show was committed to the rom-com structure it brazenly appropriated. The season's eighth episode, focused on the two characters' first date, was one of the best episodes of the year.

By the 10th episode and finale, the two are so obviously perfect for each other that director Peter Segal and writer Mike O'Malley (the series creator — and, yes, that Mike O'Malley) fill the episode's opening moments with flirting that's reflected in the way Segal stages their phone conversation.

Notice how the two of them leave a giant gap where the other could be to balance out the frame.

Cam in Survivor's Remorse.
Cam to the right...
Allison on Survivor's Remorse
Allison to the left.

It's almost as if Segal and O'Malley can't take it, and they eventually acquiesce, putting the two in a split-screen that brings them together, even if it's only via onscreen trickery.

Allison and Cam in Survivor's Remorse.
They're walking toward each other, just several miles apart.

For the most part, the episode reflects Cam's youthful enthusiasm for this girl he's fallen for, leaving blank spaces where she might be if not for circumstance.

Cam on Survivor's Remorse.
Lots of empty space next to Cam, almost as if someone should be in it.

But it's also constantly reminding viewers of the huge disparity in income between the two. Allison has to take her piece-of-shit car to the mechanic in hopes of getting just a few more years out of it. Cam thinks nothing of dropping a bunch of money on a Cadillac Escalade for her — a gift she eventually refuses.

This could read as a little moralizing — look for the woman who will love you for more than your money, my child! — if O'Malley and company didn't play everything so sweetly. But Allison's dilemma also tugs at the show's central notion: Having too little or too much money doesn't change anybody; it simply reveals who you really are.

Money brings out the best in some — and the worst in most

Cam on Survivor's Remorse.
Cam and his family handle their step up to the upper class well. But many others in the show's universe don't.

Money is both salvation and curse on Survivor's Remorse. The show's title refers to the way that Cam and his family feel as if they've left everybody they once cared about behind, simply because Cam found a way out of his lower-income Boston neighborhood. The characters earnestly want to spread their good fortune to others around them.

But Survivor's Remorse argues (sometimes clumsily) that good fortune can allow people to unleash the worst versions of themselves. For every family like Cam's, there's another that simply sees the money as an excuse to throw caution to the wind.

Cam's family, especially his cousin and manager Reggie (RonReaco Lee), is upwardly mobile. They buy nice things, sure, but they also present as aspirational figures, the best possible version of the poor family made good. Reggie is able to sit at a gambling table with multibillionaires and hold his own as both a cards player and a sparring partner. And Cam is a nice enough kid to help a sweet old lady after her bike is stolen.

Truth be told, it can sap the series of some of its immediacy. The show is usually at its best when the characters are confronting some impassable obstacle, like Cam's frustration over how he may be in control of his own destiny — but only so far, as he still has obligations to his team and its owner — or an episode in which his sister struggled with how to help a pregnant 12-year-old.

But it's also careful to note that money can turn others sour. For much of the season, Reggie tried to bring on a second client, a young football player named Jupiter, only to realize that Jupiter was nowhere near ready for that level of focus and commitment. He was the funhouse mirror version of Cam, the kid who got a whole bunch heaped upon his shoulders and couldn't handle the strain. When Reggie drops him as a client in the finale, it's as if he realizes that no matter how much remorse he feels, he can never fix everybody's problems.

One of Survivor's Remorse's producers is LeBron James, and it's not hard to read into the show commentary on James's arrival in the NBA as a young basketball prodigy. The series doesn't layer it on too thickly, but it occasionally feels as if the show is James's heavily fictionalized attempt to explain to those who will follow in his footsteps how to make the most of what they've been handed.

There's, weirdly, more than a little Booker T. Washington to it — as if the show were advising its largely black audience to grab hold of opportunities and advance themselves through smart choices. But it's also an intriguing commentary on how money and power tend to create more money and power — and tend to homogenize. To run in the circles Cam and Reggie now do requires certain levels of propriety, which are largely set by a majority white, majority male culture.

But it's not as if Cam's fortune can save even him all of the time.

Money can't stop death

Julius on Survivor's Remorse.
The season ends with a somewhat baffling death, unless you follow the ins and outs of Hollywood development cycles.

Easily the worst part of the finale (and, honestly, a largely effective season) was the decision to trot out the old "character is distracted while driving, then killed after being hit in a massive accident" trope that was tired even 30 years ago.

As Cam's Uncle Julius, Mike Epps has been the most traditionally "sitcom" character of the show, the guy who's always got some weird scheme going or has an amusing comment on whatever's happening nearby. But Epps is also taking off to star in ABC's Uncle Buck, which means he can no longer be on this show. That necessitated his departure, via car accident, his last words on this earth a plaintive plea that he wished he believed in God.

As storytelling, it's bullshit, arriving from out of nowhere and mostly existing to solve a casting problem and send the season out on a big moment. But as an expression of the series' central theme, it's slightly more palatable. No matter how much money you have, you're not immortal. What's more, Cam has to watch as the car Julius is driving (Allison's terrible one) is destroyed.

These are the stakes Survivor's Remorse plays with. In a world where money can make life much, much easier, the things that are eternal hold the greatest sway. The greatest motivators are love — both romantic and for family — and mortality, be it a character's untimely death, or Cam's realization that his career could be snapped short because his body is fallible. It's the kind of show where the stakes feel very, very small, but the more you look at them, the more you realize they're the largest stakes of all.

Survivor's Remorse is available for digital download and on Starz Play.