ABC made headlines this fall when it delayed an episode of “Black-ish,” its very funny comedy about an upwardly mobile black family, because it concerned spanking. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had just been indicted on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child after using a switch on his 4-year-old son, and ABC “[felt] like it’s not the right time right now to air it,” as series creator Kenya Barris put it in an interview. “It is a corporation and they are sensitive in a very responsible way.”
But another promising new series did air an episode about using physical force to discipline children. It is a shame that show, basketball comedy “Survivor’s Remorse,” is not getting more attention, both for the half-hour it devoted to the subject, and more generally for its scabrous, sweet portrait of a family trying to adjust to their new wealth and social position.
“Survivor’s Remorse” introduces us to Cam Calloway (Jessie Usher), who signs a huge off-season deal with the Atlanta basketball team after a breakout performance in Memphis.
The new contract lets Cam move his mother, Cassie (Tichina Arnold), his sister Mary-Charles (Erica Ash) and uncle Julius (Mike Epps) from Dorchester down to live with him. But it means that his cousin and manager Reggie (RonReaco Lee) has a lot more to juggle, especially since his wife, Missy (Teyonah Parris, liberated from “Mad Men” and clearly enjoying herself), is not particularly happy about relocating to what she sees as the cradle of the Confederacy. “How can I get you to love Atlanta?” Reggie begs Missy in the pilot. “Burn it down like Sherman did,” Missy tells him.
There are plenty of stories about people on the rise who get pulled back because of bad influences from their friends and family members, and if “Survivor’s Remorse” was merely another chronicle of the way a black man fails to shake himself loose of leeches, it would be a drag. Instead, it is something far more spritely and astute: an account of Reggie and Cam’s negotiations between the best part of Cam’s past and his future.
Take the whipping episode, which aired last week. Cam and his family are walking the red carpet at a charity event, when the conversation between Cassie and a reporter turns to Cam’s upbringing. Cassie begins reminiscing about her days as a disciplinarian, when she employed everything from a Hot Wheels track to an electrical cord to spank Cam when he didn’t mind. It is a speech that shows how little Cassie realizes that she is speaking to a national audience, and it gets worse when it turns out that the benefit was intended to stop child abuse.
The owner of Cam’s new team (“The Wire” veteran Chris Bauer) demands that Cassie apologize. Cam initially resists, until he runs into an enthusiastic fan on the street who explains how Cassie’s monologue made him feel liberated to whip his obviously cowed son. Cassie strikes a deal with Reggie. If he wants her to pretend to be someone she is not, she ought to get paid for the performance she is being required to give.
Celebrating their narrow escape from a PR disaster, Cam and Reggie get high — and start hitting each other with Hot Wheels tracks. “Survivor’s Remorse” manages to suggest that whipping children is wrong, that faking your convictions is a job that requires compensation, and that you can turn the bad things in your past into something amusing, as long as you survive them.
Upcoming episodes rest carefully in that same mix of sour and sweet. In one, Cam visits a teenager who is suffering from a degenerative brain condition. When he wakes up enough to be mobile, Cam and Reggie invite him over, expecting he will be wowed by his experience with stardom and grateful for a dunking lesson. Instead the kid, who knows he is dying, wants Cam and Reggie to hire him strippers. “Young man, back in your coma!” Reggie snaps at him.
The week after that, Cam and his family try to find a church home, only to have a pastor ask Cam to instruct Mary-Charles (a lesbian with a delightful swagger) not to hold another woman’s hand during services. Cam hopes he has defused the situation, only to have the pastor use their conversation to grandstand from the pulpit.
The values of broke people from Dorchester turn out to be more sophisticated and caring than those of a bourgie black church in Atlanta. And it is not so much Cam’s family who are parasites, but the outsiders eager to exploit his fame to far grander ends. In a fall when network television is asking to be celebrated for its new interest in racial diversity, “Survivor’s Remorse,” which airs its third episode on Saturday, deserves at least a look for its wicked, kind look at the intersection of race, class, sexuality and cultural power.