Survivor's Story: How Mike O'Malley Reinvented Himself with Survivor's Remorse

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<i>Survivor's</i> Story: How Mike O'Malley Reinvented Himself with <i>Survivor's Remorse</i>

Cell service can be spotty around the tourist-heavy island of Nantucket, Mass., which is kind of the point. It’s where Mike O’Malley, creator and writer of Starz’s affecting and acerbic family dramedy Survivor’s Remorse, is spending precious time with his wife and three children in the weeks prior to the premiere of the series’ fourth season. But in the interest of spreading the gospel about his critically lauded, broadly overlooked labor of love, he’s ditched the other O’Malleys and phoned in from one of the few nearby locations with a connection to the outside world.

“It’s just so hard to get any attention,” he acknowledges, citing the explosion of original content—and ways to access it—that roughly coincided with Remorse’s 2014 debut. “I’m 50 now, but I started back in the day when it was only three networks. There’s still some institutional memory where people think, ‘You pay your dues, you get a network show, then it comes out, and everybody’s talking about it whether it was good or bad. Now people don’t even have time to know the names of the shows.”

None of this is sour grapes. O’Malley—whose multi-hyphenate career spans nearly three decades, from a stint hosting early ‘90s Nickelodeon kids’ shows like Guts up through a pair of non-starter sitcoms, eventual regular roles on Yes, Dear and Glee, big-screen parts in hits such as Sully and a transformative gig writing for Shameless—consumes pop culture like the rest of us, and is simply in awe of its development. And given the crowded field, he’s sincere when he says, “I’m still thrilled we’re going into a fourth season and they’re letting us make the show. “

Truth is, if this were still an era bound by cable and broadcast conventions, a series like Survivor’s Remorse probably wouldn’t have found a home. Its main protagonist is fictional NBA star Cam Calloway (Independence Day: Resurgence’s Jessie T. Usher), but we never see him play competitive basketball; it’s a comedy, but has increasingly mixed in serial drama, finding laughs amid death and self-doubt; its ensemble cast, also featuring Teyonah Parris, Tichina Arnold, RonReaco Lee and Eric Ash, is the stuff of a playwright or variety-producer’s dreams, but not quite headlined by a household name (Mike Epps left after Season Two to star in ABC’s Uncle Buck reboot); and most provocatively, despite O’Malley’s pedigree as a Buffalo Tom-loving, Nantucket-vacationing, New Hampshire-bred Irish Catholic, Survivor’s Remorse is about a low-income black family from Boston who transplant themselves to the wealthy suburbs of Atlanta. If that paradox—or O’Malley’s path from everyman character actor to boundary-blurring showrunner—doesn’t compute, he’s used to it.

“That doesn’t bother me,” he says. “People are expecting light and breezy. For 25 years, I’m putting that out there as part of an acting persona. I don’t think anybody who knew me personally or grew up with me is surprised by the subject matter I’m tackling or the manner in which I’m doing it. I know that just because of my profile as an actor, by talking about the show, I will be able to bring attention to the show. But it doesn’t matter to me whether people know I’m doing the show. It’s more important to me that people are watching. But certainly there are people who are like, “This doesn’t square with the guy who was on Yes, Dear. How is Burt Hummel [from Glee] doing this? I get that.”

O’Malley would never say this himself, but truth is, he needn’t suffer skeptics. To Survivor’s Remorse’s hotshot trio of executive producers—LeBron James and his business partner Maverick Carter, who’d been nurturing the concept, along with famed Cosby Show and Roseanne producer Tom Werner—this white, middle-aged Boston sports nut (see: his cult-favorite ESPN ads as “The Rick”) was who they pegged to bring the Calloways’ story to life. (O’Malley also smartly surrounded himself with a diverse and superlative team of writers, including Everybody Hates Chris creator Ali Leroi, Girls Trip scribe Tracy Oliver and Dream On/Mad About You writer/producer Victor Levin.)

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And starting with the first episode, that story has been chiefly told in the singular, unapologetic, collective voice of Cam; his shrewd single mother, Cassie (Arnold); his proudly out and outlandish older sister, M-Chuck (Ash); his cousin/manager, Reggie (Lee); and Reggie’s polished but pugnacious wife, Missy (Parris). The show traffics less in topical hot buttons than in O’Malley and his crew’s curiosity about people’s perceptions of them. In an early, tone-setting moment, Cassie deadpans recollections of whooping her kids with Hot Wheels tracks for a stunned red-carpet reporter. Or there’s the time M-Chuck nearly beheads an NPR host who needles her about sibling-on-sibling domestic abuse (long story). Never mind Cassie’s effort to get in touch with her African roots, which somehow culminates in a heated debate about female genital mutilation. In the new season, graves get pissed on (literally), Jews and blacks have it out about who’s had it worse, and Cam nauseates local muck-a-muck into emptying their wallets for children with frozen nostrils. All of which gives short shrift to the genuine pathos of Reggie and Cam reconciling with their estranged dads, M-Chuck coming to terms with the traumatic revelation of who her father really is, and Missy’s quest for self-worth. Cramming all that material into fewer than 30 minutes a week is exactly why O’Malley took the job.

“I started writing because I wasn’t getting the parts that I wanted,” he says matter-of-factly. “I had always wanted to run my own show and focus solely on the writing, and that’s what Survivor’s Remorse has been for me.” The confidence to actually accept that responsibility grew while punching out scripts for Shameless, which taught him that you have to “look at a television show a little different than a movie, in that a good television show is about conflict, and characters have to make mistakes for their to be conflict. They can’t always be heroic.”

What makes the Calloways compelling, he feels, is their well-meaning, if often ill-fated, stabs at approaching that cinematic ideal of decency. “The characters in this show are striving to be heroic and do the right thing,” as he puts it. “But they don’t always do that, because they’re human beings. I think audiences now are sophisticated and don’t want it to be easy, because they understand the complexity of their own lives.”

As for why more viewers aren’t catching on—despite cries of praise from New York, The Hollywood Reporter, the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others—or how come the Emmys have yet to bestow a single nomination upon Survivor’s Remorse (even as the Image Awards and African American Film Critics Association have lavished it with trophies), there’s room to speculate. Is it that Starz is still lacking a breakout, Breaking Bad-type smash and doesn’t rise to the level of its premium cable peers in voters and subscribers’ minds? Are mainstream media tastemakers and potential crossover viewers unsure of how to compartmentalize a fast-talking comedy about people of color run by an understated white guy?

“I have no idea,” O’Malley audibly shrugs. “We think we have this really good product, and we think it’s complex and humorous and enlightening and emotional, and all this work that these actors are doing, we want it to be seen. We’re no different than anyone who’s making a TV show or independent film or writing a play. I will talk to anybody about Survivor’s Remorse because I’m proud of the show and the actors and directors and the entire crew. I just like doing the work and I want people watching the show so we can make more. A lot of it’s luck, so I’m hoping there’s a little luck of the Irish.”

Season Four of Survivor’s Remorse premieres Sunday, August 20 at 10 p.m. on Starz.

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