Actor-writer Mike O’Malley has a biting honesty that can’t be denied. It’s a type of grit that fans came to love in Showtime’s Shameless, a series centered on a dysfunctional Irish family living in dire straits, but finding the humor in their bad luck. This show, which he wrote for three seasons, is one that consistently blurs the moral line. It’s that same dark, comedic tone that exists in O’Malley’s first helmed show from Starz, Survivor’s Remorse.
On paper, one might see Survivor’s Remorse as a story about NBA baller Cam Calloway and immediately assume it’s a typical rag to riches story that will revolve around coach pep talks and team rivalries. But exploring the messiness of an untapped arena of the NBA makes more sense for O’Malley. It doesn’t feel like uncharted territory for the television writer. He isn’t interested in wrapping a neat bow around his arcs. He’s interested in examining the turmoil in the characters lives he’s dreamed up—exploring the complexities of what happens when pride and egocentrism collide, which is far more revealing than the winning shot of the game. We know what that feels like, and we’ve seen the clock tick down dozens of times.
Instead, Survivor’s Remorse takes everything off the court, and focuses on the family of Cam Calloway (Jessie Usher), a hilarious, brutally honest crew, who are (for the most part) glad to be along for the ride, as they distinguish the roles they take in the young hero’s life after he achieves baller status. The first season touched on how Calloway reconciled his new life as a pro athlete with his past life in the hood, and the second season has pushed on forward, as Calloway attempts to bargain for authority over his family members, and reclaim his personal life, even as he continues to grapple with how it feels to have new money and a growing celebrity status.
Ahead of the season finale, Mike O’Malley sat down with Paste to discuss what lies ahead for our star Cam Calloway, and the boldness and unique feminism of the series.
Paste Magazine: Do you think because we live in a world that’s inherently PC, it’s had this huge ripple effect on comedy?
Mike O’Malley: The PC part leads into the writing part, if you let it. Some people, I don’t think all, but some people want characters that they like to always be doing likable things.
Paste: Cam is definitely likable, but he’s not always doing or saying the right thing.
O’Malley: I look at a television show as chapters in a novel. In every chapter, people don’t behave great.
If you’re going to write a TV show you’ve got to have conflict. I’m not interested in Cam Calloway as a young athlete, I’m interested in the character. What does the money do to the character? How does a family fight among themselves? Because we know the right and wrong is in terms of society. We know that racism is wrong.
Paste: The show explores class and race, and it accomplishes that without feeling preachy, but was there any hesitance in getting into some of this?
O’Malley: With certain topics, yes. I don’t want to go at certain topics where it’s pretty obvious where the right and wrong is. It’s pretty obvious that every race should have opportunities. It’s pretty obvious that everyone should not be [experiencing] injustice, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I’m interested in a character going out to a strip club. Is that a good thing to go to a strip club? Where’s your value, and do you want to get into trouble? Who does that impact? I think for the third season I want to get into those moral question of what is right and what is wrong, because I think every human can relate to that.
Paste: What does a person like Lebron James bring to a show like this? Did it turn into something different when he signed on as an executive producer?
O’Malley: Certainly, he gives you the stamp of authenticity. It gives you access to stories. We wanted to make this a fictional world so people weren’t like, “Oh, is your uncle like that? Is your mother like that?” We were trying to take it as far away from his real life.
He has a massive heart—and that’s one of the things he shares with Cam, but he was somebody who went straight to the NBA from high school, and that wasn’t Cam. These guys are stumbling their way through it. They’re not as accomplished or transformative.
Paste: You could have easily framed this show about the NBA, but this is about Cam’s family—which is much more interesting to experience as a viewer.
O’Malley: I’m glad you say that because some people will say, “I thought this was a show about basketball?!” I’ve never said it was a show about basketball. The other thing is, you can’t be like, “When are we going to see him play basketball?” Because here are the two episodes you’re going to see about basketball—“Did he make the winning shot?” or “He missed the winning shot!” And when you see movies like that, you say, “That doesn’t look like the real thing.” You’re so critical of it. It completely takes you away from the story.
The other thing is, you’d have to cast the whole basketball team and retain them. We don’t have a budget for that.
Paste: How was it searching for actors that gelled together as a family?
O’Malley: Mike Epps [Julius], we just offered the part to because we thought he was perfect for the role. Tichina Arnold [Cassie] came in and she’s an accomplished actress already, and was prepared for her audition. She was a no-brainer, because we knew she could nail it. Erica Ash came in an audition for Missy, and we thought, she’s tall, she’s attractive, and we called her back in to read for M-Chuck and she did great.
Paste: It’s important to give women these bold voices, especially in comedy where, aside from the Amy Schumers, it’s dominated by men. Some of my favorite scenes are with Missy, M-Chuck and Cassie.
O’Malley: They’re unbelievable. Joshua Alston from AV Club—it was tongue in cheek—but he wrote, “Survivor’s Remorse is a show about women’s sexuality.” The third episode Cassie gets a new vagina, the fifth episode M-Chuck takes care of a young girl that’s pregnant, the sixth episode is about HPV and that storyline carries through. And it was like, “Well played, Survivor’s Remorse, everyone thinks it’s the Entourage of basketball but it’s about women.” I have to say, guilty as charged.
Paste: What do you think about those comparisons to Entourage? I thought they were a little off base.
O’Malley: It’s about the group, and I’m happy to have the comparisons to Entourage, in terms of their success and their longevity in dealing with the issues of fame and fortune—it’s something that we share, but [Survivor’s Remorse] is about the ties that binds you when you’re a family, and the history that binds you.
Paste: Your show isn’t afraid to dig deeper in the constructs of comedy. It’s obvious that you’re conscious of this tone.
O’Malley: We try to be. I don’t want to misuse the word “bold,” but I think you have to be open to completely ripping apart a topic and looking at it from all angles, and then writing drafts where it might make someone uncomfortable about that particular issue. Before you’re putting it out there, you’re going through it with a fine-toothed comb and understanding the story that you’re telling. The only way you can have a conversation about truthful things, is if you go at it with a truthful matter, and I think that’s what people respond to. Those are the conversations they’re not hearing anywhere else.
Paste: How do you balance seeing Cam in a romance without getting stuck in the minutia of romance itself?
O’Malley: The challenge for us as writers is—how do we let them be happy, while showing them making mistakes and messing up their lives so that they’re stories help us live in our own lives? And I think that’s the purpose of drama. If you dramatize the circumstance and see the emotional wreckage of a mistake, maybe that’s something that adds to your own experience. It’s another way to make you think. It’s hard because the romantic in me wants to see people live happily ever after, but happily ever after only works at the final episode of a television show. You need conflict in a television show. And because crappy things are happening to other people, it’s funny to us.
Paste: I’d heard that Shonda Rhimes pitches the season finale of her show at the top of the season to her writers, and that made me think about the structure of a show’s season. Do you have a full scope of your season?
O’Malley: No, it’s interesting. Half-hour shows have usually been episodic, so when they run in re-runs you can watch any of them and not need any backstory to what’s going on. We struggle with this now, because a lot of our fans say, “This show feels like an hour show.” Yet, the holy grail in television is to make 100 episodes, have it syndicate. I don’t think that’s how people consume television anymore. I think going into this third season I’m going to be thinking a little bit more about the overall story of the show.
The Survivor’s Remorse season finale airs Saturday, October 24th at 9:30 pm EST on Starz.