'Survivor's Remorse' Creator Talks Finale and Cancellation: "It Feels Like a Death"

Survivor's Remorse Still 2 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Starz

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

Sunday (Oct. 15) night marked the end for Starz's beloved, relatively low-rated Survivor's Remorse. 

It was an end that came abruptly for the LeBron James-produced basketball dramedy, a series I've long championed.

One moment The Hollywood Reporter was breaking news of the cancellation, and then Starz was airing the last two episodes just nights later. They were not conceived as a series finale, and they were not executed as a series finale. Plotlines dangled involved Cam's (Jessie T. Usher) relationship with Allison (Meagan Tandy), the truth about the murder of M-Chuck's (Erica Ash) father and the ambitious business deal that threatened to cause friction between hoops star Cam and his cousin and manager Reggie (RonReaco Lee). 

Survivor's Remorse creator Mike O'Malley got on the phone on Monday to talk about the show's surprising truncation, several of those unplanned cliffhangers and why he isn't optimistic about the series finding a new home. O'Malley, who talks in the same free-flowing monologues he often put in the mouths of his characters, seems disappointed by what went down but repeatedly emphasized his appreciation for the freedom that Starz gave him and the show. 

I've seen quite an outpouring of support and love for the show in the past 24 hours. That has to be gratifying.

It was gratifying. Look, you write about this stuff. You live this stuff. You pay attention to shows with great granularity and you also have to watch shows that you don't enjoy. And the truth is that the same spirit goes into all of them. People are constantly trying to make good shows. Very few people are only into it for the money. For most people who go into this business, there was a play that they did or an independent film or something that they saw that they really connected with emotionally and that's where it springs from, that people want to be involved with this. 

It's hard to get something that sticks and that you know is good. Yes, it comes down to the writing, but it really comes down, I think, to the alchemy of actors coming together. Certainly everyone's seen bad productions of good plays, or there are scripts that are well written or an adaptation of a story that just doesn't seem to connect, so the hardest thing, being an actor and having been on shows and using really the same approach on anything that I'm working on, it's that group of people coming together, the actors and the writers and the directors and the crew. It's the actors who have to go out and render these people and really inhabit these words. The writing is important, but the actors coming together and making it seem special, that's the elusive thing. 

On this show, we got really, really lucky, because it all came together. That's the thing. I think I'll write something else and I'll go to do something else and I'll try to act in something else, but I've been doing this for a while now, and finding that cast is hard. 

A lot of showrunners talk about their five-season plan or their three-season plan, a lot of things to give the sense that a show is not just a ship floating without a rudder. Did you have a long-term plan that got truncated in this case?

I had a longer-term plan for the next two seasons. I thought it was gonna go about six seasons. I'll admit that when the show started, when we sold the show and we were originally developing the idea, the idea in half-hours was always "Don't answer too many questions, because if you answer a question you're gonna back yourself into a corner and you wanna just have it be episodic, where you can drop in on a show at any juncture." If you go back and look at the first season of the show, we were just going at topics and issues. Those were standalone things.… That was also the way that the production schedule and the writing schedule was set up. Then it became obvious around 2014 just how people were viewing television and consuming television was different. 

So Starz really yearned for us to have a more connected, longer storyline, and I embraced that. I liked it. I liked rolling it out a little differently. It's harder sometimes when you're doing that. Sometimes you have a staff and someone's working on one episode and you're working on the other thing and you're like, "Oh man, I figured out something I want to do in episode two," and it's just a different kind of work. It's not like, "Here's the characters. This is the camping episode. You go write a funny camping episode. I'm gonna write a funny high school reunion episode." There are elements in those stories nowadays that you have to be carrying throughout. 

So the episode that aired on Sunday was very clearly not intended as a series finale. In your mind, what happened between when you finished production on this way earlier this year and last week, when the news of the cancellation broke?

The journey for me is that I wrote it open-ended, thinking that the show was coming back for a fifth season. The actors were under contract for a fifth season. We weren't going to have a renegotiation issue with the actors. They were ready to go. We just had to let them know. It's interesting. We had an interesting and fun show, and the majority of people, I think, who engaged with the show enjoyed it and came back for more and stayed with us. When we were on after Power, that was a great boost to us. 

I don't know, because they haven't really told me, but I was thinking up until last Tuesday when I was called and told the show wasn't coming back that we were coming back. You'd have to ask [the Starz executives]. The obvious answer was that it wasn't rating how it needed to rate. All these networks need to have people tuning in throughout the year. You can't just be tuning in for two months when Power is on and then you cancel your subscription when Power goes off. What they need is they need each show that comes on to carry the baton in the same way. They need each show to carry its own weight.

So for whatever reason…for whatever reason? Look. They put our show on for four years. They let us tell the stories that I wanted to tell. They paid us to do it. It was really great. They were, creatively, a really great network to work with, because they allowed me to pursue stories that I wanted to pursue, and I enjoyed that part of it. I have no complaint. I wish that they'd picked up another season, but other than that, what can I say? Any fault of the lack of appeal is solely mine. I mean that. I'm just sad that we can't make more.

Were there any conversations about being able to tie this up in an hour or in six episodes or something?

Yeah, I think there was a conversation. I think it was a conversation internally and I was not, then, asked to come in and pitch. I think that internally at Starz there were conversations with people that they were having about how to honor the audience or serve the audience. There's something to having a sense of closure, and there is something to being able to wrap up a thing. 

Look, I still haven't watched all of Friday Night Lights. I bought all of the DVDs and now I could just stream it, of course, but I think once my kids get older and I have a little bit more time, there's this sense that it was not just a show that was on for a little period of time and was then abruptly canceled. It had an opportunity to have a sense of closure to it, and I wish we'd had that opportunity in Survivor's Remorse. 

It's hard to come up with a show. It's hard to come up with characters. It's really hard to get the actors. Then once you get it and you're clicking and you feel like you're going, you want to keep doing it. Also, it was a show that really allowed me to talk about how we live now — or how some people live now — that I really enjoyed. Every showrunner feels this way, I'm sure, that you've got a bunch of stories and you're getting ready for the next season and then the show's gone? Well, there's a lot of Survivor's Remorse stories that are not gonna be transferable to another show. I'm not gonna be able to pull out my notebook and be like, "Well, I can just use that M-Chuck story here." By the fifth season, these characters begin to take on lives of their own, and their stories are their stories. I've got all these characters roaming around in my head, and I've filtered my day-to-day existence through thinking about how I can come up with things for them to say and what their challenges are. 

I think I was midway through this journey of a group of people who were really looking for happiness and to be at peace with themselves and to lead with love. The lead character, Cam Calloway, it came to him very naturally. I think it didn't come as naturally for the other characters, and watching them embrace their own growth in terms of how they dealt with their own pain and how they learned to love others and seek forgiveness and give forgiveness, those were things that were rewarding to think about and to write. I was hoping to take them a place over the next two years that showed that their happiness was really earned and something worked for, that they were striving for and they received.

On Twitter, as people were realizing that this was the end, there was the inevitable run of "Netflix! Save this show!" or "Amazon! Save this show!" Do you see any purpose in those conversations existing?

I love it. Listen, I'd love to keep writing the show. The thing about this show is that it's owned by Starz. Starz's goal is that you have the Starz app and you become connected to Starz programming and you want to have their network so that whatever it is that Starz delivers to an audience, you have. They don't want to become a production company for another network or another streaming service, just to put it bluntly.

Talking about the finale, the only "mystery" the show left unresolved really was exactly who and how M-Chuck's father was killed. Was that something you knew the answer to and were prepared to answer going forward?

Yeah, I knew that Julius was responsible, but whether or not Cassie was there when it happened is something that we were ready to explore, whether or not Cassie was there and had a hand in that and her own justice or her own vengeance, that was something that we were going to write about in season five, whether or not she was going to "own" her story or whether it was M-Chuck's story to tell. That was the beginning of another story. M-Chuck writing about it in her English class and discovering that she had a talent for writing was the beginning of another story about who's able to go and tell that story and when you tell that story, who gets caught up in the machinery of that and the complications of that. It's a story of somebody who's been injured and may not want other people to know, for whatever reason. One of the things she was talking about in that story and that Cassie says is, "I'm not here to be pitied." Now, that's one perspective, and some people would say, "But it's important to tell your story so that other people are brave enough to tell what's going on with them." That's a "survivor's remorse" story, one of those things where you wouldn't even think about telling that story unless you were placed in a circumstance where it was like, now she's the mother of a rich, famous athlete and people think there's value, commercial value, in her telling the story, telling her own story, about what she's overcome, and also emotional value for other people. Like, "If you're brave enough to tell this story, then maybe other people will learn that it's important to get therapy and change how people are treated." It's a lot of what's going on right now in the news.

And did you have a sense of how Chen's business deal was going to go for Reggie and Jimmy? And did a lot of that hinge on how much you were going to have Chris Bauer available? 

Yeah, Chris is just such weapon for us. He's a friend, and we've been friends for a long time, and I just love his range. I thought he fit in really well with the cast. But he's doing so much and he probably would not have been available to us. The reason he wasn't around this season is that David Mamet asked him to be the lead in his new play and he's doing The Deuce on HBO, so he's hard guy to pin down. We didn't have him as available this year and then next year? We would have had him for a few. I think he would have ended up selling the team, and that was a storyline we were going to go for. Chen was going to deal with immigration issues and visa issues and business practice issues as he became a little bit more vocally supportive and active in what Cam was beginning to speak out against. I also think that he really wants to have a family and his own children, and that would have been a challenge to watch Chen and Cassie try to navigate, whether not they were going to have another kid, that she was going to have in her mid-40s and get settled down with him. That was going to be an interesting thing for us to tackle, because it's one thing for people to be enjoying one another, having fun, having a good time, being in love, having a physical relationship. That's one thing. The minute you start thinking about the future and building a family together, it puts other things in sharper focus, like whether or not he was going to be allowed to be folding into this family. She was somebody who I don't think really ever had an adult relationship with somebody who really adored her, and that was what was really fun about that relationship.

Cam gets the little victory involving the removal of the sponsorship from the uniform, but presumably there was some blowback that was going to be coming to his activism, right?

Yeah, 100 percent. We had a whole story that we wanted to tell, and we actually wanted to tell it in season four, and I kinda wish we did, which was about Stone Mountain, and it's interesting how those issues became so prominent. What are the symbols that we venerate? That was a big thing for him, and things matter to people. Cam was going to become even more outspoken. It may or may not have impacted his game. I probably would have written it that it only made him better. Ancestral shame is a big thing in this country, and that was something that would have been explored on our show.

What's next for you? How do you see the industry looking at you since you're both a creator and showrunner on a well-regarded show and also a beloved character actor? How are you looking at you?

I loved being the showrunner on this show. I loved working with people and making the show and having my hand in so many things. What I missed was being in the game and playing. There's a real joy of just being a part of a team, acting and playing, and I think there's a real art to it. That's not to say that I don't think there's an art to writing, but making a show, it's a real grind. It's a good grind. You're constantly thinking about it. You're thinking, "How can I make it better? How can I rewrite it? How can I work on this?" It's completely immersive. You can't punch the clock. There's really no downtime. You're just completely engaged and alert and focused and just taking everything. That's a state where many people live all the time. For me, I'd written plays and had them produced when I was younger and I've had pilots produced, but nothing to this degree of demand and focus. 

It's also, like I said, how do you come up with a good one that warrants that kind of attention in your life? It's going to take other things in your life out of balance. If this is going to be the thing that takes you away from your kid's baseball game, then it'd better be something that you really feel has not only a use for yourself, but a use for other people. I mean "use" in that it's making you think and you're building emotional and valued relationships with people that you're working with and it just has intense elation and gratification to it rather than, "This is just a grind."

I just think that's hard to do, and I tip my cap to people who do it constantly and they just keep doing it. I felt that Survivor's Remorse was a perfect situation for me, because I was on a network that was allowing me to tell these stories with really strong actors and writers that I could work with, great directors and [producers] Tom Werner and Maverick Carter and LeBron James, who were endorsing me, powerful guys who were able to say, "Hey, we're really behind the kinds of stories that he's trying to tell." I would love to do that again, but I don't want to just do it again to do it again. I really want to find something that's great.

Everybody talks about, "Well, there's 400 shows on television." Four hundred shows on television? What is the arena that you're going to find that feels new or that you have something to say about it? I have a lot to say about being a dad and being my age and being married, but people are living that all the time. Why do they want to see that? 

The thing about this show, what was so great about it, is that we all see the polished statements that pro athletes say when they get into trouble. What I thought was great about this show is that I wanted to see what the hornet's nest looks like before they come up with the statement, even if they're well-intentioned people. You wrote something earlier that I loved, "I wish there was an apology episode," and I had a great apology episode for next year! It was so great. 

I don't know, man! Maybe this is one of those shows that, two years from now, after all the people writing about us and it's like, "You should go make eight more" and then all the actors are available for 10 weeks and you go do it. But that's everybody's hope…. Like The Mindy Project. That's a great show. She's really talented. But for every show like hers that gets picked up and goes someplace else, for everyone else it's almost like it just delays your grief for another month.

And gives us all false hope.

Right. And that's a drag. It's funny, because I started responding. People were like, "What the fuck kind of series finale is that?" because it was being promoted as a series finale and it's only a series finale because they canceled it. It's not like we wrote this well-crafted ending to this thing. I think I wrote something today like, "Yeah, it was written as a cliffhanger. And then guess what? We got thrown off the cliff."

I say that in jest because, again, I had an opportunity in writing this show — and it's so important that this is conveyed — and what's so great about this time in our business is that people, because there's so many shows, they're thrown out there and they're given the opportunity to run their own show, far more people than it was when we first got into this business. That's a great thing. Sometimes you come up with something that's just absolutely beautiful and serendipitous, and I'm somebody who always approaches my work as if this thing's gonna end. 

The sad thing about this thing is that it feels like a death, but it doesn't feel like a slow death where everyone's around you in hospice, watching and telling you how great you are, and your family's there and "You had a wonderful life." This just feels like you're walking down the street, you're clutching your heart, you say, "Uh-oh, this is how it's gonna end?" And it ends. All of us are hoping for the hospice death, surrounded by loved ones with slideshows and music and probably some good drugs that are keeping us somewhat alert. And some of us, like Uncle Julius, get hit by a truck.