'Survivor's Remorse' Creator on Season 3 Finale, CG Fetuses and Colin Kaepernick

Mike O'Malley also discusses how losing Mike Epps hurt, but helped the Starz comedy.
Quantrell D. Colbert/Starz
Jesse Usher of 'Survivor's Remorse.'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's season three finale of Survivor's Remorse.]

When the second season of Starz's Survivor's Remorse ended with Mike Epps' beloved Uncle Julius clinging to life in the aftermath of a serious car accident, I wondered if the basketball-fueled comedy had made a detour into drama and tragedy that it would struggle to maintain.

Beginning the third season from a point of collective grief, series creator and showrunner Mike O'Malley and the Survivor's Remorse team actually used and embraced the darkness, moving further and further from those early "Entourage with basketball" comparisons. Without sacrificing the provocative humor that allowed Survivor's Remorse to tackle beauty standards in the African-American community, the etiquette of thank you notes, female circumcision and an LSD trip featuring a conversation with a computer generated aborted fetus, the show pushed deeper into the family dynamics within the Calloway clan. 

Sunday's finale offered a different series anomaly as Reggie (RonReaco Lee), M-Chuck (Erica Ash) and Cassie (Tichina Arnold) spent most of the episode separate and separated from Cam, who coped with a playoff loss to the Celtics. After dispatching the series' father proxy in Uncle Julius, the finale continued M-Chuck's search for her father, saw Reggie aggressively reject his recovering alcoholic dad and ended with Cam arriving at prison to see his father. 

Does that set up the fourth season as The Season of the Father on Survivor's Remorse

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with O'Malley about what the future holds for the Calloways, how Epps' departure caused the show to change and how the increasingly politicized post-Kaepernick sports environment will inform and impact the series. We also talked about the challenges of creating a CG fetus and what the move to Sunday nights and a cushy post-Power slot meant for the show's growing audience.

The full Q&A with O'Malley, minus the part at the beginning where we talked about the Red Sox and Jacoby Brissett...

The season began with the death of the man who had been something of a father figure for Cam, M-Chuck and, to some degree, Reggie. When did you know that you wanted the season to culminate in two characters going to their fathers and one walking away?

We really did sit down and think about that at the beginning, that that was a place a place where we wanted to end up. … One of the things that's been interesting about Survivor's Remorse is that from the time it was developed until right now, in a very short window of time, how people watch and consume television has changed significantly. We started off with the idea when we were developing that it's just a half-an-hour show with elements of comedy and drama, but it was episodic in nature. How people are watching television now is engaging with characters on such a personal level that we really realized that, rather than leave some questions unanswered... Like for me, the minute you answer a question, then you're locked into that as a storyline. Like: He has a brother or he has a sister or he has a cousin. It completely anchors characters. One of the things that I had experienced from working in half-hour comedy before and had learned from working with [Yes, Dear executive producer] Greg Garcia is, "Don't answer a question until you have a story for it." Don't say who they are, where they're from, what it is, because this show could be going for 200 episodes and you don't want to necessarily tie yourself into something that you might want to explore later.

So I felt like this idea of, "What were the origins of these characters? Where are their fathers?" was such a question that we decided that now that we've lost Julius and these characters are really straining for, "What are their lives about? What are their relationships about?" – we really decided that we had to explore that.

How much, then, is season four already charted out as a Season of the Fathers?

Not at all. (Laughs.) I'm going into the writers' room next week. Another way in which I've approached Survivor's Remorse is that I never knew if we're doing another season, so we're swinging for the fences whenever we can and trying to take on subject matter and stuff about how we live now and what human beings have to deal with in a way that, if the show didn't get picked up or didn't come back, I would be able to say, "Well, at least I took on these subjects and I explored things that are interesting to me and issues that go on between family members and people that are interesting to me." And that's what the thrill of doing this show for me is. 

As we now see that it's going to be around longer and you have to explore those things, I think it's time – and this is something that [Starz CEO] Chris Albrecht and [Starz Managing Director] Carmi Zlotnik have encouraged – that you slow it down a little bit more and you get into a little bit more of these characters: What are their motivations? What are their histories? What do they want?

The other challenge is the following: When you're working on a show that shoots in Atlanta and we have seven series regulars – that's a lot of mouths to feed and all really great actors. I'm including the five main actors, Chris Bauer, who was a series regular last year, and Robert Wu, who was a series regular last year and will be a series regular again this year. So to go into the season and really look at where Cam's father is. Well, he's in prison. He won't be around. There will be some stories there, but he's in prison in Boston, so just in terms of the proximity to the storytelling, to what's going on with those guys, he will not be around as much. I do want to continue to explore the Reggie relationship, even though he completely sends him off. And then the truth about where M-Chuck is and the truth of that story and what the revelations are of that story, yes, that's going to be something we explore in this season.

This has always been a show about the Calloway family unit against the world as it were. But in the finale, the main characters are all mostly separated. Did you always know how dark and lonely that would make the finale feel at times?

Yeah, that was by design. I think that's the harshness of life. We have hopefully loving family members that can support us and be this net that, when we fall into despair, they're able to hearten us and be with us and love us and carry our pain, atomize that pain a little bit so it feels smaller, but we still have to go through it and we have to go through it alone. 

I think what the show is about, at its core, is that there's grace and beauty and joy in life, but there's also this incredible darkness that we have to deal with, if not necessarily a daily basis, but just in the situation of being alive and being human and all of us have to figure out a way to deal with that. Some of us, in the situation of Cam, take on that a little bit more personally than other people do. Somebody like Reggie is just like, "I don't have time to figure how life is. I just know that life is this and I'm going to make sure that this family is protected." There's people like M-Chuck who just get angry about it and just want to kick people's asses. There's people like Cassie who until now have realized that railing against anything is pure hopelessness, because no one's hearing what you have to say, so now you just have to cope and take care of yourself and sand down the edges of your unhappiness. Whether or not that works for her, I don't know. It's certainly not going to work for her in season four because she's finally going to be faced with incredible conflict. She can stand there in the driveway and say, "This is the last time I'm going to talk about it again." Well, like many people who when they first start pulling the scabs off of a history like this, it's very, very challenging. And then there's Missy, who's looking and world and saying, "There's just no reason that these things should be the way they are in the world, and I'm going to speak up, and I'm going to change them, because if not me, who?" (Pause.) This is a 4000-word story, right?

It's the internet! It's boundless.

Good. I'm glad. 

The thing about Survivor's Remorse is that you look at these professional athletes right now who are trying to be more than just professional athletes. They're trying to make the world better, either through speaking out or through donating incredible amounts through their foundations, by just doing more. Cam Calloway is that character who's trying to do more. 

But what his fame and fortune have brought all of the people in and around his life is, they're now faced with the question of, "What can I do that's more? Do I have to do more? Do I have to do anything to help anybody else? Can I improve this world? Or is it just a never-ending, put-my-head-in-the-sand and just be happy I got out and I'll vote for a progressive candidate, but other than that, what can I do to fix it? I didn't make the world. I'll click some Facebook 'Like' buttons. I'll hashtag some bad news and say, 'Isn't it ridiculous that this is bad news?' But ultimately I'm just trying to stay in shape and keep my relationship going." Are they going to be those people? I don't think that they are going to be those people. That's what season four's about. This is a unique moment in our history and its time for men and women of conscience to stand up and speak and do more than they're doing. And that is at the heart of who Cam Calloway is and some people might want to prevent him from doing that because of what it might cost him, but ultimately I think that he's just not going to be afraid to do that.

The real NBA is on the verge of having to figure out how it's going to deal with NBA players and their responses to and solidarity with the Colin Kaepernick protests. How much are you waiting to see how real life responds to that before you decide how you're going to respond?

I don't care about how real life responds, because I have my opinion about how I think that characters should respond and what I also think is worth exploring. I shouldn't say, "I don't care," but what's great about fictional characters and what's great about writing drama is that you can show the consequences of a character making a choice and you can then write the argument for or against that choice and you can see how it impacts the characters and it's all happening to fake people. I think what happens sometimes in real life is that the actions of a political candidate, of a professional athlete, is that the commentary obscures what's behind the action, because to have conflict in covering the news story or balance of that news story, you've got to have the counterweight to that, right? "He's doing this..." "Well, critics say he should..." "Such and such an athlete is doing this..." "Well, he's offending blah blah blah." It's great for a writer to be able to look at decisions that people in real life make and then dramatize those things and see what happens behind-the-scenes.

For us on Survivor's Remorse, what the show is about is, "What happens when the cameras are turned off?" I'd be interested in what's happening and what's being said in Colin Kaepernick's house. What are his friends saying? What is his family saying? What are his teammates really saying? They're afraid that if they say it, they're going to be treated a certain way or shunned or embraced. All of that stuff is, for a television writer, interesting material, but it pales in comparison to the courage and the bravery that real athletes have of going out and taking those hits. We're just making a TV show. That's their real life.

The season's big basketball-related plot was the negotiation episode, which introduced and wrapped up that plot in only 30 minutes rather than dragging it out. You certainly could have dragged that out. Why didn't you?

I don't know. A lot of people loved that episode. It was really well-written, well-directed and well-done. I don't know. Maybe it's because I personally find myself less interested in the basketball side of things and more interested in what's going on with all these characters, personally. We're evolving as a show. I think that because of how much people really did enjoy that stuff... We joke that we're not going to be showing a big basketball game, because we don't have the money to shoot and we don't want to cast the whole team, but what we are able to watch in an episode like that is stuff like: "How good is Reggie at his job?" And people like that. People really like to see why Cam has put such faith in Reggie rather than saying, "Reggie's really good at his job. Reggie's really good as a manager," we get to see how he's good at his job. That's one of the appealing things about telling that kind of a story. 

One of the ways that we're going to do that this next season is become more involved with what it's like to be Da Chen Bao. To be at the head of an apparel company that is really trying to go to the next level and what does it mean for Cam to be involved in a business like that. How is the apparel made? How is it manufactured? How is it distributed? What does it mean? That's another thing that I think is going to come up this year.

The Uncle Julius death was something that y'all had your hands forced on to a large degree because of Uncle Buck and Mike Epps' career and whatnot. How long do you think it took you and the other writers to become accustomed to the Julius-free rhythms of the show and how are you feeling about the show that Julius' death made Survivor's Remorse become?

It was very hard. We talked about it for probably three-and-a-half weeks. Was he going to be alive? Was he going to be dead? If he was alive, did we have [Mike]? And because of the schedule of Uncle Buck -- It wasn't on the fall schedule and it was going to be a later spring thing and then it went to summer, so it completely changed it. It was very hard. Mike Epps is a singular talent. You could write 10 pages for Julius in every single episode and laugh your tail off and know that it was going to be great, just because he was going to then ad-lib stuff and bring stuff to the show. I think that it deepened the relationships and it helped in terms of the title of the show, in terms of making things more serious. I think its helped the show in terms of the writing of it, but I'm not going to deny that when you lose somebody like Mike, who's a singular talent... you don't just replace him. You have to deal with his absence. 

It also gave an opportunity for all these other people to come up, right? You were able to have much comedic material for Teyonah Parris and for Tichina Arnold and for Erica Ash and you can do some funny B-stories with Reggie or just a comedy of manners story that's about a thank you note or trying to get rid of a gun, that if Mike was still there, that material would be handled by him and not the characters that we had doing it this year.

It's just one of those things, man. Losing Mike was hard. We could write material for him and people love him and people loved Julius and I knew that when it had to go this way... And I say that, "it had to go this way," because this family is so tight that not having Mike available to us, as to how we set the show up, you'd constantly have to have it like, "Call Uncle Julius and let him know that the baby's being born" or "Why isn't Uncle Julius at the wedding?" It was an opportunity to be like, "Look, we don't have him. We're not going to have him, so it could make everything a lot deeper if we look at his loss." 

I'm not going to say that it's been fun figuring that out. It's been challenging. I miss him. Mike had this opportunity and more than just Uncle Buck -- he was in a Weinstein movie that's still being developed about Richard Pryor and this was his dream to do this thing for a long, long time and that was going to happen, too. Survivor's Remorse is a little show on Starz that we're trying to get people to pay attention to. We don't have that kind of budget and production schedule. We make one episode in five days and we're shooting 32-34 pages. These are dense scripts. In 10 weeks, we have no hiatus. I'm not complaining, but how that show functions is there's no wiggle room to figure out people's movie schedule.

I wanna talk quickly about last week's LSD trip. First off, how hard did you have to work to make a CG fetus who people could actually look at and occasionally laugh at? And was the fetus designed to look an awful lot like Little Penny?

(Laughs.) Well! It was really, really hard and we spent a lot more of our budget probably than we wanted to. The character's named "Figgy," because it's a figment of what Cam thinks a 20-week-old fetus would look like, not what a 20-week-old fetus would like. We went through a lot of variations of this, in terms of the sheen of what the fetus would look like, certainly when a child is born, but also when a fetus is not. There's a lot of stuff involved in that and if you were going to have it covered in a sheen and blood and all of that, would it just be so distracting that people couldn't even hear what the character of the fetus was trying to say? I can't even believe I'm saying "the character of the fetus was trying to say."

I knew that this guy was on an LSD trip and he's wracked with guilt and he's thinking about choices made, things said, things unsaid and so the idea that we were even doing that, that we even had an episode where we were animating... I mean, it was going to be a puppet! And the puppet looked like Chucky! You can't imagine. I think the special effects guys who did this, they're unbelievable. I've known them since the days I did Yes, Dear. They worked so hard on it. There were so many notes. People were just like, "I can't believe you're doing this." 

So yes, I love that you asked the question, because there was just so much discussion about it. We're not afraid to take on the topic, right? That some people have regrets about decisions made? (Laughs.) It's just preposterous, right? It's even like the fetus says in the thing. I was like, "Come on, doc, give me my shot. Of course, you couldn't hear me under the skin and tissue and muscle." And Figgy goes, "And of course, I didn't have a voice." They guy's brain is just tripping on him.

Nuts! Nuts. It's nuts! Nuts. It's the most insane episode.

And just as a last question, the move to Sundays has led to some record audiences for the show and I was just curious about if and how you've felt the added viewership this season in terms of responses you've gotten or a sense of where the show is fitting into the broader TV conversation?

I think that what happened is that like many television shows that don't have well-know casts — if you don't have a big star at the center of it, a movie star — and you don't have incredible marking dollars behind it, the best way to get people tuning in is to be behind a show that is a hit. Without a doubt, Starz putting us on after Power has brought a whole new audience to our show. But so has social media! They started to share clips of the actual scenes of the show. In particular, there was the great scene with Tichina Arnold that she was terrific in in episode nine where she reveals to Cam the origins of M-Chuck's father. This is a scene that they put out on social media and Facebook and the amount of views that it has had is far beyond any promo, anything. And why is that? It's because here's a sample of how the show is, in part, and you can watch this two-minute clip. If you go and you look on the Facebook page, you've got people going, "I didn't even know about this show. I've never even heard about this show." But people are sharing it like, "OK, this is a show that's taking on these issues and the acting is incredible. Check it out!" 

Like, I can no longer defend the title. It's like, "Survivor's Remorse? What?" I mean, it sounds like the most depressing show in the world. "Survivor's Remorse: A Comedy on Starz!" But at this point now it's like, "Survivor's Remorse? What is it?" And people have to explain it and then, if you're into that kind of thing, you're going to like the show. But it was not until we were on after Power that a large group of people discovered us. And for some people, it's for them, and for other people, it's not. Survivor's Remorse is not a show for the faint of heart.

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