Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for August 7 through 13 is "The Age of Umbrage," the fourth episode of the third season of Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse.
Few trends in American life have proved as ripe for satire as the outrage cycle, where a celebrity says something horrible, whether in or out of context, then has it trumpeted around the world thanks to a 24-hour news cycle that needs something to talk about.
There are good reasons this has proved such fertile ground for comedy. For one thing, it’s all just a little bit ridiculous. Regardless of how terrible the things celebrities say are, their every utterance probably doesn’t deserve the same level of coverage afforded to, say, a head of state.
But the success of these ideas in a comedic setting also stems from how these arguments often involve scenarios where both sides are a little bit right. The celebrity in question might not have meant to say a stupid thing, but they did. And those pushing back too often suggest that what the celebrity said shows their true, evil heart. In short, it’s an area with no easy answers, and that’s the kind of place comedy can thrive.
And perhaps no comedy on TV is as good at walking the razor-thin line between mocking the outrage cycle and understanding its need to exist as Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse, which has dedicated multiple episodes to the idea over its three season run.
The show offers wisdom on both sides of the outrage cycle
The pinnacle of those episodes is "The Age of Umbrage," which aired Sunday, August 7. In it, basketball star Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher) mentions on a radio show hosted by an old friend that he wants to help kids with the (fictional) disorder "Frozen Nostril Syndrome," which purportedly fuses nostrils together, as if they’ve been frozen shut. In the course of talking about it, Cam uses the term "fucked up," and soon, he’s being accused of calling kids who couldn’t control being born with a birth defect "fucked up."
The episode, scripted by series creator Mike O’Malley and directed by Ali LeRoi, who has directed many installments of the show, is especially interesting because it reverses some of the expected dynamics in play. Cam and his family (who, as always in this show, only exacerbate matters) are all black, while the woman who starts a petition to see Cam punished in some way is a working-class white woman.
And what’s smart about O’Malley’s script is that he zeroes in on why Cam caused such outrage — even if he never once meant that kids with Frozen Nostril Syndrome were fucked up but, rather, that the syndrome itself was.
He can’t possibly understand what it is to be that woman, having to work long shifts at a factory, then go home and care for a child who’s had a ridiculously difficult life. Even if he starts a foundation for kids with the syndrome, he’s never going to viscerally understand what it is to live with it hanging over his life.
Yet at the same time, the series makes great light of the way that the 24-hour news media, with nothing else to talk about in a slow news cycle, will take just about any excuse to pile on a celebrity who’s said something stupid, forcing them into insincere apology after insincere apology, until something finally sticks or a new target presents itself.
But the episode also understands that the only thing that will truly get Cam out of the doghouse is a sincere apology — yet one he doesn’t feel particularly compelled to give. (His first effort effectively boils down to the famous non-apology, "I’m sorry if I offended anyone.") When he finally manages one, he also drags the media and the company the petition-starter works for, which has caused higher rates of other diseases in children with its chemical runoff.
In short, there are no good answers here, only a situation that nobody can control. Cam maybe shouldn’t have spoken as offhandedly as he did and could have chosen his words more carefully. But once his words were out there, there was little to no reason for the media to turn them into a massive story. And in the end, the kids whom the whole controversy was about get lost in the shuffle.
Survivor’s Remorse is great at mixing tones like this
This is the way of Survivor’s Remorse, which is the kind of show that veers wildly between comedy, dark comedy, and outright drama, sometimes within the same scene. Even the show’s title — referring to the many people the Calloway family left behind in their old Boston neighborhood — has a darker tinge than you might expect from a show as frequently uproarious as this one is.
The show’s third season opened with the death of Uncle Julius (Mike Epps), the show’s most obviously comedic character, because the actor left to do another series, and it hasn’t really let up from there. Though it’s jumped forward from the funeral to tackle more obviously comedic moments and topics, the death continues to hang over everything, causing Cam to take a more fatalistic view of his life, hoping to make a difference before his time, too, is up.
But the world is deeply suspicious of sincerity all the same. Cam and his family are new enough to fame that there’s a moment in almost every episode where they put themselves out there, as honestly and nakedly as possible, and they’re still at least somewhat rejected, because their money isolates them. They can have the best intentions in the world and still fail to understand how they come off.
In fact, I don’t think there’s a better show on TV at examining the weird divisiveness of the American class divide than this one. Cam and his family didn’t have money at one time, but now that he’s a major NBA superstar, they have all the money they could need. And their journey to the upper classes isn’t about alleviating financial tensions but, rather, about the moment when they realize that everybody else will perceive them differently because of that money. In short, they have to learn how to be people with money, because the world expects it of them.
When I brought up this topic with O’Malley and the show’s cast in a series of interviews at the Austin TV Festival in June, they pushed back at my thesis a little bit. To a one, they all said that the message of Survivor’s Remorse isn’t that having money turns you into the same person as everybody else with money, but that it reveals who you actually are. If you’re a jerk, it gives you license to be a bigger one. And if you’re a basically decent person like Cam, well, it gives you the chance to show that off too.
But I think "The Age of Umbrage" tweaks that idea just a little bit, too. The only reason Cam has a target on him when he says the words "fucked up" is because he’s famous — and because he has money. Remove those two things, and nobody cares what he thinks — but he also won’t be able to help kids with Frozen Nostril Syndrome. In the world of Survivor’s Remorse, we’re all part of the solution and all part of the problem, and we try to distract ourselves long enough to forget that.
Survivor’s Remorse airs Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on Starz.