Things are finally turning around for Jesse T. Usher.
For two seasons, the “Survivor’s Remorse” actor has struggled to emerge as a star in an ensemble cast full of dominant comedic performers, especially with alpha actors Mike Epps and Tichina Arnold.
But when season three of the Starz comedy premieres Sunday, Usher slowly but surely emerges as a major contributor on this underrated series filled with genuinely funny and touching moments.
The tide turns in the heightened season opener as Julius (Epps) fights for his life following a cataclysmic collision with a semi truck that closed out the second season. Cam (Usher), in turn, is convinced that because he’s a rich and famous basketball star, he’s somehow to blame for his Uncle Julius’ predicament. After all, Cam bought his girlfriend Allison (Meagan Tandy) a new car and Julius was driving her old jalopy when the car crash occurred.
It is through Cam’s palpable anguish that viewers finally see a man convincingly torn apart by the limitations and realities of fortune and fame. What good is money and celebrity if you can’t protect the ones you love? Making matters worse, that same fame can make you a target for insensitive fans more interested in photo opportunities than personal space and compassion in a time of grief.
Usher doesn’t just tell viewers Cam is heartbroken. With every slight and disappointment his character suffers, he shows us the slumped posture and teary questioning eyes of a distraught man consumed with sadness. Tragic circumstances can inspire brilliant comedy and tremendous growth and in the case of “Survivor’s Remorse,” Usher and the show benefit from a little less Epps.
Episode four, titled “The Age of Umbrage,” also gives Usher more than a few shining moments as Cam unintentionally offends fans while making a philanthropic gesture. At first, Cam is confused by the public’s outrage, but by the end of the installment, he figures out a way to turn the tables in his favor. The dance is so masterful that you can’t help but wonder if the comedy’s executive producer and three-time NBA champion LeBron James didn’t shape the story line with a little wish fulfillment of his own. Additional kudos goes to series’ creator and writer Mike O’Malley (“Glee”), director and co-executive producer Ali Leroi and their writer’s room for rolling with the punches and turning their third year into the best one yet.
Viewers should also expect a noteworthy turn from Arnold, who costars as Cam’s shameless mother, Cassie. Her budding relationship with Chen (Robert Wu) is fun to watch and full of undeniable chemistry. Epps also turns up the comedic charm, as does RonReaco Lee as Reggie, Cam’s manager and cousin, and Teyonah Parris (“Mad Men”). She plays Reggie’s wife, Missy.
The heated exchanges between Reggie and Missy this season are especially humorous and give Lee and Parris the space they need to flex their acting muscles in new ways as they relatably tackle everything from colorism to classism. Meanwhile, Erica Ash’s “Boston way” of cursing and communicating feels forced and gratuitous, but thankfully does little to detract from her character, Mary Charles,’ refreshingly unexpected kinship with Jimmy (Chris Bauer, “True Blood”).
“Survivor’s Remorse” has long garnered comparisons to that other pro sports comedy “The Game,” which came to an end last year. Both shows boast talented and attractive casts and tackle the trials and triumphs of professional athletes and the people they love.
But where “The Game” suffered from format changes and network instability, “Survivor’s Remorse” is being nurtured and groomed so that its actors can thrive and convince — and boy is it paying off. Here’s hoping the audience keeps growing, too.
Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV critic and entertainment reporter.
10 p.m. Sunday