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The key to a great show is diversity. Just ask ‘Survivor’s Remorse’ creator Mike O’Malley

Mike O’Malley
Mike O’Malley is the creator and lead writer of “Survivor’s Remorse” on Starz.
(Jennifer S. Altman / Los Angeles Times)

The key to a great television show is a great writers room. For a show like Starz’s “Survivor’s Remorse,” currently in its third season, “great” means much more than talent. For the show’s creator, actor-writer Mike O’Malley, it means diversity -- in age, race, religion and gender, among other things -- and authenticity.

“Not only was it intentional to find younger writers and people of color who could write about what people in their 20s are going through -- which is four of the five main characters in the show -- [but it was critical having them] talk about what’s important to them, as relatable to these characters,” he said.

And that means, says the self-described “white, Irish Catholic with three kids,” sitting back and fostering a space where the young folk and those of different backgrounds have room to meaningfully contribute to a show about a black family.

“Survivor’s Remorse” follows the sudden prosperity of the Calloways when Cam, played by Jessie T. Usher, is signed to a major basketball team. Uprooted from the projects of Boston and plopped in the high-rises and suburbs of Atlanta, Cam brings along his cousin-manager (RonReaco Lee, “Let’s Stay Together”), mom (Tichina Arnold, “Everybody Hates Chris”), older sister (Erica Ash, “Real Husbands of Hollywood”) and his cousin’s wife (Teyonah Parris, “Dear White People”).

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(Comedian-actor Mike Epps played Cam’s uncle in the first two seasons. The beginning of   Season 3 depicts how the family copes with his character’s unexpected death.)

The show is executive produced by basketball icon Lebron James and his business partner Maverick Carter. Their lives, and the lives of others in the sports and entertainment industries, inspired the concept: How people who’ve never had money, and those around them, react when they suddenly make it big.

James and Carter hatched the idea for the show and O’Malley came on board as its show runner, aided by veteran producer Tom Werner (“Roseanne,” “The Cosby Show”). The pair looked for an experienced writer who understood that all black people are not the same, because this show needed to be different.

“It was about making a show that stood for something and meant something to people,” said Carter. “[It needed] to be authentic to the story we wrote and the people and places we knew and had been.”

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O’Malley, best known for his Emmy-nominated turn as Kurt Hummel’s dad on “Glee” and boasting a résumé with extensive writing credits including work with veteran show runner John Wells on the Showtime dramedy “Shameless,” was the perfect fit, Carter said.

“Mike’s professional enough and smart enough and sophisticated enough to add to the project,” he said. “He also understood that he would need a team around him to help with certain nuances [of black culture], but that there’s not one way to do it, not one version of black people.”

O’Malley’s diverse staff helps the show “get it right,” Carter said.

Erica Ash, from left, Jessie T. Usher, Teyonah Parris, Tichina Arnold and RonReaco Lee are stars of “Survivor’s Remorse.”
Erica Ash, from left, Jessie T. Usher, Teyonah Parris, Tichina Arnold and RonReaco Lee are stars of “Survivor’s Remorse.”
(Starz )

O’Malley said he purposefully staffed that way to ensure different perspectives were not only in the room, but at the table and with the pen. 

“I would write, ‘Hey, I’m totally psyched to go out tonight,’” he said with a smile, noting his age, 50. “But you don’t say that anymore. I needed guys who could write about what young people are doing right now [from a variety of vantages].”

Once the room was filled, O’Malley made his expectations known.

“He opened week one and said he didn’t want to do a show that was derivative of another, that he wants something fresh and said that if there were ideas he hadn’t thought about, as a white guy from Boston, to put everything out on the table,” said Tracy Oliver, a two-season writer who went on to co-pen “Barbershop: The Next Cut.” “He set the tone for ‘let’s go crazy and do something interesting and personal.’ That’s why the show touches on race and issues you haven’t seen before, because Mike creates an environment in which people feel like sharing.”

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This dialogue brought forth nuanced takes on uniquely black phenomena. For instance, the episode airing Sunday titled “The Photoshoot” details how colorism shows up within, and affects, the African American community and entertainment industry.

Another story line took on the journey some black women take to return their chemically-treated hair to its natural state, a process known as transitioning.  Occuring at the start of Season 2, it was the brainchild of Oliver (and Parris, who both made the decision to embrace their natural hair) and is a direct example of writers being empowered to speak up and identify conversations that aren’t being had on television.

“I would know nothing about that and the fact that when a black woman moves to a new city she has to figure out where her hair is getting done,” O’Malley said. “It may be something that any person thinks about, but it’s not the same thing. When I found out about this, I was like, ‘this is amazing and has to be written about.’”

Such a unique aspect of black culture — the importance of hair — having a major presence in the show “only comes out of me [prompting the writers to] talk about some things that aren’t being talked about and the courage of them raising their hands,” he said.

The way O’Malley and “Survivor’s Remorse” incorporated the natural hair bit is also perhaps a greater illustration of the importance and utility of having black people, and a black woman in this case, writing the words black (women) characters say.

Earlier this year, the writers room of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” received criticism for what viewers assumed was a lack of diversity (read: not one black voice) in what they deemed questionable plot points around race in the show’s most recent fourth season.

Particularly at issue was the death of a beloved character at the hands of a guard  in the penultimate episode. The death, and resulting “Black Lives Matter”-esque sentiment that swept the prison, left viewers uneasy. Though often difficult to put into words what exactly troubled them, many, including April Reign, creator of the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, strongly sensed that black people weren’t writing the story. Their hunch was seemingly confirmed by a 2015 tweet from the OITNB writers Twitter account that resurfaced, and a subsequent study by the media company Fusion that found that of 16 people who have writing credits on all four seasons of the show, none is black.

“These issues were not handled as well as they could have been had there been more writers of color on staff,” Reign wrote in an Essence op-ed.

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Therein lies a broader industry problem that puts O’Malley and the “Survivor’s Remorse” writers room ahead of the curve. Along with a number of minority-led shows on broadcast and cable, including “black-ish” and “Empire,” this show’s truly diverse staff is attempting fully thought-out, incisive conversations about race in a way that is authentic.

But O’Malley’s not looking for kudos.

“This is not something I’m doing because it’s cool to do,” he said. “This isn’t ‘we’re going to say something or do something that isn’t being said’ [for the purpose of purely doing so.] This is how it is.”

O’Malley’s matter-of-fact approach to writers room diversity, Oliver said, is what helps “Survivor’s Remorse” thrive, from the script to the screen.

“That created a difference of opinion on what blackness is,” she said. “As a group of writers, we would argue about certain things, but we were open to learning about people’s [varying] points of views.”

And that conversation is the key.

‘Survivor’s Remorse’

Where: Starz

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.


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