It’s time for Elizabeth Warren to leave ‘Ballers’ behind and embrace Starz’s smarter, funnier, more emotional, more political comedy.
As I am not a politician, I can’t and shouldn’t lecture Sen. Elizabeth Warren on policy, protocol or how to maintain resistance as part of the minority party in the legislature.
I am, however, a TV critic and I feel no hesitation in telling TV Viewer Elizabeth Warren that she really ought to ditch HBO’s Ballers, her allegedly favorite show, to check out Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse, a comedy that I’d say does everything Ballers aspires to do, except that I don’t think Ballers aspires to do much of anything.
Somehow it became a meme that Ballers is Elizabeth Warren’s favorite TV show, and I have no doubt that this has gone from something she casually mentioned at some point into the realm of hyperbole and that she really just happens to like The Rock. As far as I can tell, having watched every episode of Ballers, there’s no other reason to watch, much less enjoy, Ballers. There’s perhaps no show on TV that leaves me feeling less on a weekly basis. I don’t hate it at all, but it doesn’t make me laugh or think or feel. Episodes end and there’s nothing to consider, positively or negatively, going forward. It’s 25 minutes in tepid water, a sensory deprivation tank in which one might float with The Rock.
Survivor’s Remorse, on the other hand, is a lacerating dark comedy about family and sports and the price of the American Dream. It doesn’t shy from potent issues and begins its fourth season emboldened to try new things in terms of style and tone.
Creator Mike O’Malley and his team already proved in the third season that embracing darkness and setting comedy aside for almost whole episodes at a stretch was something they could do. A cliffhanger involving the potential death of Mike Epps’ Uncle Julius wasn’t ducked or cheated. Instead, the third season began with two full episodes of grief and searing pain for the main characters, as NBA star Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher), his relatives and Survivor’s Remorse all dealt with a world now stripped of a comic release valve and source of reassurance. After those episodes, the series slipped easily back into its regular episodic rhythms before closing the season with a triptych of paternal anxiety. The show left us with Cam preparing to visit his father in prison, M-Chuck (Erica Ash) going to Boston to learn the truth about the rape that led to her conception and Reggie (RonReaco Lee) seemingly rejecting the return of his repentant, recently sober, formerly abusive dad.
Once again, Survivor’s Remorse has become about O’Malley and company proving they aren’t interested in evading consequences, a direct reply to critics who wrongly described the series as “Entourage with basketball” when it premiered.
After switching from comedy to dark family drama (still with a vein of humor) for two episodes last season, O’Malley has expanded the show’s parameters to directly deal with repercussions for three episodes to launch this new run. Told in a more condensed time window than the series has attempted before, the season-opening batch of three installments deals immediately, extendedly and honorably with Cam, Reggie and M-Chuck coming to terms with their long-absent fathers. It’s a detour that also feels organic because of the gap Uncle Julius’ death left in the show’s life and in the lives of its characters last season.
Here’s a thing I must acknowledge as a longtime passionate fan of Survivor’s Remorse: “Dramatic” isn’t my preferred mode for the show, but I respect the show for doing it. While the start of last season exhibited Usher and Ash’s range, I don’t think “serious” is the thing either of them play best. Tichina Arnold, like Lee, is able to play drama with equal comfort to the comedy, but the season opens with Cassie still in China meeting Da Chen Bao’s (Robert Wu) parents, so Cassie is away from the main storylines, and when she appears (very effectively), it’s via telephone conversation and not for in-person friction. The opening episodes are, in fact, dedicated to keeping everybody in the core cast separated, something the show rarely felt the confidence to do in its first couple seasons. The actors can all sustain their own individual storylines and early episodes feature great work from guest stars including Isaiah Washington, Marlon Young, Sir Brodie and a magnificent Neal McDonough, but it happens that I like my Survivor’s Remorse best when the Calloways are interacting as a unit.
It’s unquestionably true, then, that by keeping the main cast apart for three episodes, I appreciated the return to regularly scheduled Survivor’s Remorse all the more through the rest of the season, which I watched in its 10-episode entirety. The fourth episode, in which all of the Calloways pass through Cassie’s live podcast episode and it becomes a referendum on the notion of “the black community” as a monolithic voice, becomes especially joyful. I also appreciated how the insecurity of absent fathers remains a theme that plays throughout the season, with the introduction of Missy’s (Teyonah Parris) dad, played by the rarely better Isiah Whitlock Jr., offering an overprotective contrast.
Uncle Julius’ death helped make the show’s title literal and the fourth season pushes more deeply into meaning of the expression “survivor’s remorse.” What is the responsibility that you have when you make it out of a situation and many close to you do not? How many people do you owe and how much do you owe them? Cam has always expressed the survivor’s remorse of carrying his family on his back and doing everything for them, but this season is about Cam realizing more and more responsibility to the world at large. It’s an arc that’s in conversation with Colin Kaepernick and the recent return of the activist athlete, but Survivor’s Remorse doesn’t mention Kaepernick’s name once. Kaepernick is always in the background of the fourth season, as is the current Trump presidency, with Trump getting only one direct name-check during the season. It’s all woven throughout, and it’s part of how the fourth season deviates from some of the episode-of-the-week structure of previous seasons.
I miss some of those hot-button episodes a bit, and I was disappointed that this is the first season that doesn’t feature an “apology” episode, tied to our ever-unfolding culture of umbrage. I also really wish Chris Bauer weren’t an actor in such great demand, because owner Jimmy Flaherty is only a limited presence this season. Bauer makes the most of his every moment and has a rant about the compromises of capitalism that was a real highlight.
A little less screen time for Bauer (and perhaps also for the busy Arnold) probably relates to a little more screen time for the excellent Parris and for Wu, whose comic timing is a thing of beauty. The second half of the season also, perhaps for the first time, makes Meagan Tandy’s Allison into a real character, including expanding on her professional life with the help of a cameo from DJ Khaled. Did DJ Khaled add anything to my enjoyment of Survivor’s Remorse this season? No, but if mentioning DJ Khaled gets more attention for one of TV’s sharpest and most provocative comedies, I’ll shout it to the rooftops.