The writers of Survivor’s Remorse had a great task ahead of them, with the Season Three premiere. A prominent character, due to some standard Hollywood logistics, had to be written off of the show and it had to be done in a way that served the greater narrative. I admit that I was skeptical, during the first few minutes of “The Night of the Crash.” Uncle Julius, played by the great Mike Epps, suddenly dying from a car accident was so clearly a forced plot move, it wasn’t clear that the premiere and the series as a whole would find a way to push past this and survive.
Somehow, the team of writers, showrunner Mike O’Malley and the actors took the the loss of Epps and Julius, and managed to use it entirely to their benefit. These odd, foul-mouthed characters who we’ve come to know and love were able to present themselves under a completely different lens: as people suffering through the first stages of grief. And since we’ve already seen how the Calloways and Co. love, fight, laugh, fuck and think, watching them try (without success) to make sense of a tragedy felt, in some strange way, like a logical opening for the third season.
In addition to some really fascinating feminist thought, which I’ll get into shortly, financial issue and the complications of religious belief (and non-belief) were woven in to the plot, in a way that felt true to Survivor’s Remorse. The main characters, especially Tichina Arnold’s Cassie, stumble and fumble about, as they try to determine precisely what Uncle Julius believed in. How do you have a Church funeral for a guy whose dying words were, “I wish I believed in God”? Otherwise, how do you consider cremation, burning the body of a man who was, literally, just here? What does it mean that Uncle Julius carried around a plastic prayer card with St. Francis of Assisi? The answer to this, revealed in the second part of the premiere, “The Ritual,” is hilarious, offensive and absolutely perfect for the Survivor’s Remorse brand of humor. Perhaps most importantly, watching the characters (particularly Jessie T. Usher’s Cam Calloway, who had third verse Lost Ones-levels of regret over the car he bought, which led to the accident), wrestle with their misplaced guilt, helped to further humanize each one of them.
But there was one scene in particular that managed to elevate the premiere from good, to powerful. And as the first half of the premiere came to a close, it felt as if the audience was experiencing a Death at a Funeral-style dark comedy, because “The Night of the Crash” played more like a short film than a two-episode TV premiere.
After learning of Julius’ death, M-Chuck (Erica Ash) and Missy (Teyonah Parris) are having a conversation about, strangely enough, M-Chuck’s desire to go to college. Following the tragic news, they both try to relax with their usual method of choice—Missy with a glass of red wine, and Chuck with a joint. Like most of the shots that we see when the family first gets home from the hospital, it’s a dark scene, composed with a palette of beautiful blacks and blues, the characters looking almost like shadows on a cave wall. M-Chuck begins to [uncharacteristically] quietly explain her decision to go to school, and how—as a woman, and as a single woman and as a gay single woman—it’s not so much a personal decision, but an obligatory effort. She has to do something with her life, and as much as this is true for most everyone on the planet, M-Chuck captures what makes the notion of productivity different for women, specifically non-breeder women (her words) like herself.
“You got an excuse, you’re married,” she tells Missy. And the two go on to have an exchange that’s all too familiar to many women, even those who don’t fall into the same class as these two. Missy tries to explain why she’s not working, insisting that she’s going back soon. She just wanted to support Reggie and get them settled in Atlanta. M-Chuck counters that Missy not working is not the same as M-Chuck not working—Missy’s a wife, and (likely) a soon-to-be-mother. She is, therefore, automatically considered to be a more productive member of society. Even if she’s “just” at home, the world knows that she’s at home, doing her wifely duties and she gets some credit for that (we know, of course, that such credit would never be enough for Missy). And when she finally has children with her well-to-do husband, she’ll really get a pass—M-Chuck says—and no one will expect her to work. As a single, gay woman who’s being supported by her brother, rather than a significant other, M-Chuck will never be looked at in the same way. Technically, both characters act as support systems to their family members, but they are still seen in two very different lights. At the very least, Missy has “accomplished” something, by being married. And M-Chuck knows that going to college is one simple way to change the way she appears to the outside world. And of course, we all know that it’s more complicated than that. Even with a college degree, there still lies the assumption that all women must have kids, and those who choose not to are outliers, or worse. It seems that Survivor’s Remorse may delve deeper into this issue, since one of the opening scenes showed Missy and Reggie getting it on, and Missy being resistant to Reggie’s talk of babies.
It’s surprising that such a conversation fits in so beautifully with the dominant narrative of grief that permeates the episode, but it also makes sense. When someone dies, you don’t necessarily deal with it, by immediately talking about the loss, and the person who’s gone. Your mind (especially with the help of a little weed) can veer off into strange places. Instead of mourning, you might find yourself explaining to someone, as M-Chuck does, the unique burden of being a particular kind of woman who still must adhere to the values of the patriarchy. Sure, M-Chuck probably has interests she’d like to explore in college (and it’s a great moment when Cam tells her that he’ll happily support her new academic ventures), but the burden that she feels to do something, and the burden that Missy feels to explain herself—those are very much informed by centuries of men determining the proper behavior and placement for women in society.
Though brief, the scene is so well-written and performed, it served as an immediate reminder of why I’ve always enjoyed this show, and championed its distinct sensibilities. By the time we witness Uncle Julius’ burial and wake in “The Ritual”—and find out the truth about his, er, religious practices—it’s clear that, even with the high brow presentation of this premiere, the raunchy and ridiculous comedy remains in tact. The biting dialogue isn’t going anywhere, and even the feminist bent is an aspect that has always been a part of the show’s fabric. But there’s something new here as well. The captivating cinematography and bold directorial choices from Peter Segal, and the decision to dive deep into new and even more serious territory, tell me that Survivor’s Remorse is doing something only great shows attempt to do—it is evolving.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.