Starz’ ‘Survivor’s Remorse’ returns July 24: does Uncle Julius make it out alive?

Uncle Julius in a flashback scene in episode one of "Survivor's Remorse," season three. CREDIT: Starz

Uncle Julius in a flashback scene in episode one of “Survivor’s Remorse,” season three. CREDIT: Starz

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Friday, July 22, 2016

[SPOILER ALERT: The fate of Mike Epps‘ character Uncle Julius was discussed by Epps and others going back to January in various stories online. There are reviews where Julius’ status is referenced. It’s not really a secret. But if you really don’t want to know, please stop reading NOW. I’m not kidding. So don’t get angry if you go below this paragraph.]

Technically, last season on “Survivor’s Remorse” ended with a cliffhanger: did Uncle Julius survive a car crash?

But when Mike Epps earlier this year was cast as the lead of an ABC remake of the John Candy film “Uncle Buck,” it became obvious to anyone paying attention to TV that he had moved on and his hilarious side character wasn’t going to make it. (Unfortunately for Epps, ABC cancelled “Uncle Buck” soon after it debuted despite passable ratings. Maybe “Survivor’s Remorse” should have just sent him out of town instead?)

While on a set visit earlier this spring at the Buckhead mansion that is considered basketball star Cam Calloway’s crib, creator Mike O’Malley said he and Starz agreed to let Epps go because they felt this was the best career move for Epps – even if it wasn’t necessarily a great situation for “Survivor’s Remorse.”

“Mike Epps is a star,” O’Malley told me. “Mike should be in the center of his own show and he wanted to be at the center of his own show. He came to me and said, ‘I have this tremendous opportunity. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Can you let me out of my contract?’ He’s very very popular but I’m an actor, also, and I know what opportunities mean to actors. Mike’s been around a long time. So Starz graciously let him of his contract.”

O’Malley, who knew about Epps’ departure before season two had even started, said they had Epps for only three out of 10 episodes because of “Uncle Buck.”

So they made the risky creative decision to kill off Uncle Julius. O’Malley felt the character only being on occasionally would throw fans of Epps off. He needed some way to ensure the show could move forward without Epps consistently in the picture.

“His absence is felt on this show,” O’Malley said, “but this cast across the board is immensely talented. We still have to make the show. So as we go into our season three, our audience is going to have to decide whether they want to move forward with the five characters who are still living and the additional cast members that we have. I think they will because I think the work they’re doing is tremendous.”

The first episode this Sunday at 10 p.m. deals with how the family grapples with Uncle Julius’ death. Each character starts looking at their own lives, with each realizing how fragile life can be, that happiness can turn to tragedy at the turn of a dime.

“It shifts the focus of your life,” O’Malley said. “It makes you think of important things. ‘What does life mean to me? Do I want to have children? What’s my relationship with God?’ The last line that Julius says at the end of season two is, ‘I wish I believed in God.’ ”

The official trailer skirts any of the darkness that pervades the first two episodes:

The maturing Cam (Jessie T. Usher), the star Atlanta basketball player who brought his family down from Boston, harbors heavy guilt because he bought a car for his new girlfriend that indirectly led to the crash. His girlfriend feels just as guilty.

As usual, former Stone Mountain resident RonReaco Lee’s character and Cam’s manager Reggie Vaughn assuages Cam. “You are one in a million, man. You made yourself into a man with a cape,” Reggie tells Cam. “Don’t beat yourself up for doing what cape-wearing heroes do. Don’t turn good gestures, kind gestures into anything bad. You make good things happen for so many people.”

“Uncle Julius didn’t need credit for being a great uncle,” Reggie continued. “He just loved us and basked in us being us, watching us succeed.”

Jessie T. Usher and RonReaco Lee in season 3 of "Survivor's Remorse." CREDIT: Starz

Jessie T. Usher and RonReaco Lee in season 3 of “Survivor’s Remorse.” CREDIT: Starz

This is not the stuff of comedy. Even the flashback scenes featuring Epps as Julius are bittersweet.

“This season started out in a very odd place for us,” Lee said on set. “We typically come back on the first day, it’s like the first day of school. We’re high fiving. But instead, we come back with this heavy scene between Jessie and me. It’s been a most draining season for me. The first two weeks were brutal.”

The grief he had to channel over Julius’ death spilled over into his actual mind. “I was getting depressed,” he said. He also thinks Julius’ death makes Reggie “more cold, a little more callous.” He becomes more focused on making even more money.

Ultimately, it’s clear the cast would have preferred Epps to still be around. “It’s unfortunate we couldn’t figure out a way to make it work,” Lee said. He misses the old-school music Epps would blast on set, be it R&B or Guns N’ Roses.

Plus, Lee said, “the workload has increased with Mike gone.”

Jimmy Flaherty (Chris Bauer), the basketball club owner, will have a beefier role and is now a regular. “He’s searching for family,” O’Malley said. And we’ll continue to see more of Cam’s girlfriend Allison (Meagan Tandy), who remains a grounding presence for Cam. Cassie (Tichina Arnold) sees her relationship with sneaker mogul Da Chen Bau (Robert Wu) deepen. “He loves her for her,” O’Malley said.

Tichina Arnold (left) with Robert Wu in "Survivor's Remorse."

Tichina Arnold (left) with Robert Wu in “Survivor’s Remorse.” CREDIT: Starz

And a friend from Boston nicknamed Squeeze (Catfish Jean) shows up to help around the house and add some more humor into the mix.

Erica Ash, a Decatur resident who plays Cam’s fiery sister M-Chuck, was a little worried about how the writers would handle Epps’ departure. “I am actually floored by what they’ve come up with,” she said. “I really think this will be the best season we’ve had. It will allow fans to see us in a different light. This has made everyone step up and be there for each other. It’s shaken us up.”

Her character, who can often come across selfish and resentful, “goes on a path of self discovery. She was really really close to Uncle J. She lost a part of herself. She has to fill that void… She realizes she doesn’t want to be that person who just mooches off her brother. She’s not just funny M-Chuck or fighter M-Chuck. She’s far more emotional this season.” (Her list of grievances are impressive in episode three.)

Erica Ash (as M-Chuck), RonReaco Lee (as Reggie Vaughn), Teyonah Parris (as Missy Vaughan)- Episode 301

Erica Ash (as M-Chuck), RonReaco Lee (as Reggie Vaughn), Teyonah Parris (as Missy Vaughan)- Episode 301

Despite all this heaviness, the fun will return on the show.

Usher said the first two episodes will focus on Uncle Julius’ passing. By the time the third episode comes along, four or five months have passed. As Reggie tells Cam in episode two, “life is for the living.”

Cam’s career is flourishing. “I’m like the Steph Curry of the team,” Usher said. “After his uncle passed, he focuses even more on the court. He turns that anger into something he can use on the court. He’s growing and growing and growing.”

I came to set during the  shooting of the eighth episode. Flaherty and the Calloway family are at the dining room table on Palm Sunday. Flaherty is explaining the holiday. It soon comically turns into indirect talk about whether Cam plans to stay or leave Atlanta for another team since he has an opt-out clause at the end of the season.

Maverick Carter, LeBron James‘ manager, was a key reason why the show even exists. He continues to be a close advisor. “With this opt-out in Cam’s contract,” said executive producer Victor Levin, “we talked to Maverick about it to make sure we had it correct. Truth is always your best ally.”

"Survivor's Remorse" creator Mike O'Malley on set. CREDIT: Starz

“Survivor’s Remorse” creator Mike O’Malley on set. He appears to be in Midtown Atlanta in this shot. CREDIT: Starz

O’Malley, known as an actor who starred in CBS’s sitcom “Yes Dear” and received an Emmy nomination for his role in “Glee,” is both intensely serious but loose on set. On this day, he wears a faded T-shirt from some long-past charity run. A Boston cap is on his head. Out of nowhere, he begins singing Sinatra.

During a break, he extolled Atlanta with pure sincerity.

“The crew in Atlanta is tremendous,” he said. “I love being here. I’ve spent over the last two years six months in Atlanta and the people, the services, the restaurants, when I’m not at work, I love it. It’s a thriving city. There’s a real brightness to the effort people bring to work.”

The show is more than one character, but Epps’ absence still weighed heavily on O’Malley’s mind in March.

“I love Mike,” he said. “I still plan on writing him in as a ghost and have him in flashbacks. Just have to figure out how to do it.”

Mike O'Malley directing Mike Epps. CREDIT: Starz

Mike O’Malley directing Mike Epps. CREDIT: Starz

TV PREVIEW

“Survivor’s Remorse,” third season debut at 10 p.m. Sunday, Starz

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