“Does he even know what an indentured servant is?” Flaherty splutters, furious that Cam is throwing a tantrum even though events are in his contract. “Let’s conjure up the spirit of some indentured servants who worked for squat for seven to ten years to repay the cost of a disease-ridden trans-Atlantic boat ride, the Irish bretheren of my forebears.” There’s a pregnant pause. “Don’t compare disease-ridden trans-Atlantic boat rides with me,” Reggie tells him. Things don’t exactly get better from there. “That’s the kind of person I am, unpredictable when provoked,” Flaherty blusters. And then the killer riposte: “Maybe you should go into law enforcement.”
“Survivor’s Remorse” is sharp and wildly funny about race, and particularly about the intersection of race and class. It’s the rare place anywhere in American public life or culture where white characters actually talk about whiteness — their immigrant ancestors, their white guilt, the scripts they fear playing into. The show features more terrific black female characters than any show outside “Orange Is the New Black,” and often lets them be funnier, brasher and raunchier than the men. The comedy, which returns to Starz for a second season on Saturday, feels like a show we’ve been waiting on for a very long time.
All of this makes it particularly amazing that “Survivor’s Remorse” is the creation of a middle-aged white guy. Mike O’Malley is a veteran television actor whose work spans network sitcoms like “Yes, Dear” and “My Name Is Earl,” cable dramas like “Justified” and, most recently, Ryan Murphy’s long-running musical melodrama “Glee,” in which O’Malley played Burt Hummel, a single father to a gay son (Chris Colfer) struggling to come out in Ohio. He created the show in collaboration with LeBron James, Maverick Carter (James’s business partner) and Tom Werner, a veteran TV producer who is also part owner of the Boston Red Sox and the British soccer team Liverpool F.C.
“I am who I am, and I am where I’m from, and I think that I can write this show because I’m a father, I’m a brother, I’m a cousin, I’m a son, I have a mother, I have a sister, I had a grandmother, I have aunts, I have friends,” he told me when we met at a diner in Hollywood to continue a conversation we’d begun several weeks earlier. “So the human part of it, I get all of that. But the specificity of some language, or point of view, if I resist someone, if I resist even the notion that someone could question it, then I’m not making a show that’s going to be fun to work on.”
These conversations aren’t just a matter of creating a pleasant atmosphere on set and in the writers’ room. O’Malley looks to the writers and actors to correct his vernacular and slang: “I have to ask them, I’d be like, ‘I’m totally psyched that we’re going out tonight, it’s going to be wicked awesome.’ And I know the characters wouldn’t say that, but that’s what I want them to convey,” he explained. “So I say, ‘What is the current lingo?’ I don’t want to be like, ‘That’s off the chain!’ I’m quoting lines from some movie. So as an older guy, you gotta rely on your staff.” He turns to James, Carter and Werner to verify that he’s getting the details of the sports business right, something that was particularly important to Carter, because “he was going to have to walk into every arena in the country, he didn’t want people to say ‘That’s bulls—.’ ”
And when I asked about his writing staff, O’Malley was quick to enumerate the specific contributions that different writers have made to the show. Vic Levin, a producer on shows like “Mad About You” and “Mad Men,” is a “very talented veteran who really knows how to break stories and also has a very strong kind of moral compass, which I think is important for a show.” Tracy Oliver, who wrote and directed on Issa Rae’s acclaimed series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” and co-wrote “Barbershop 3,” “is really great in terms of giving us specifics on the female characters, what it’s like to be a black woman, a black woman now.” Raphael Jackson Jr. and Damione Macedon, now writing for Starz’s drama “Power,” shaped last season’s storyline about corporal punishment. And Phil Augusta Jackson, who has since moved on to the staff of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” brought his experience performing at Upright Citizen’s Brigade to the table.
That collaborative spirit extends to the actors. Teyonah Parris plays Missy, Reggie’s wife, who resents being transplanted to Atlanta, and finds herself having to adjust to the Calloway family’s rather more raucous style. Parris, who played secretary and office manager Dawn Chambers on “Mad Men,” a show famous for its adherence to series creator Matthew Weiner’s exacting vision, says “I respect that, because I also come from the theater where you say the words that are on this paper. The playwright, the screenwriter, they took however much time, years, to write this exact wording in this order. You say it like that.”
But she’s enjoyed being able to have more creative input. “There have been some things that, because they’re funny, Mike will pitch it, and I’m like, ‘Mike, listen, I don’t think Missy would be the one to say or do that.’ So we’ll have those types of discussions. And then the whole storyline about Missy’s hair” (the character goes natural this season) “that’s something I pitched, and he was very open to, and said ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ And I couldn’t believe he actually said yeah. There are some things culturally that Mike O’Malley will just not understand, being a white man from Boston. He just will not understand. So he leaves that room for us to fill in those sorts of nuances. But it’s not that often that we come to him saying, ‘This is clearly off.’ And I don’t think I’ve ever had to say that.”
Erica Ash, who plays Cam’s outspoken, sexual conquistador of a sister, Mary Charles (she goes by M-Chuck), got the opportunity to design M-Chuck’s wardrobe.
“I specifically asked that they make M-Chuck very feminine,” Ash said. “I didn’t want her to be stereotypical TV butch lesbian, ‘I have to wear boy’s clothes, I have to have a boy’s haircut, I have to walk around like a guy.’ … I wanted to keep a little bit of that softness and femininity at least in her costuming, because I know that when it comes to her actions and her personality, there’s a nice juxtaposition. And I think for me, in every character that I play, I like to have a little bit of juxtaposition there.”
Or, as O’Malley put it, “I do think that you gotta hire people and let them go. … I don’t want it to be a place where it’s my train set, I’ll tell you how the trains run. … I don’t think you should be working in television, nor do I think you can get the best out of everyone, if you’re not looking for everyone to have a deep investment and collaboration in it.”
The result of this is a show that’s able to come at issues of race, class and gender from unexpected angles. O’Malley is particularly interested in the way that characters interact with cultural scripts that they’re aware of but that they desperately hope not to repeat, and how their personal choices interact with “the things in society that are backwards or that need to be better thought-out.”
What makes the second-season premiere of the show unusual is the way it positions the conflict between Cam and Flaherty such that both men are desperately trying to untangle themselves from the historic circumstances in which white men got to tell black men what to do. Flaherty’s desperately trying not to be a racist — one of the events he’s trying to get Cam to attend is a tribute to Nelson Mandela — but he can’t help but come across as a white man who feels entitled to a black man’s labor, because he is one: Cam signed a contract with him. And Cam doesn’t want to come across as making their conflict about race, even though he feels the way he does not just because of Flaherty’s tone, but because of all the history that lies behind the power imbalance between them.
“Neither Cam nor Flaherty can do anything about the skin that they were born in. Yet they are inheriting a circumstance that they did nothing to exacerbate that relationship. They’re two very big, caring, conscientious guys who are trying not to let that bleed into their arguments. Because it could be easy to do so,” O’Malley said. Reggie’s role in the situation is to acknowledge Cam’s feelings that race is somehow at play in his relationship with Flaherty, but giving him a choice: “This is not being a pawn or a field hand or the bourgeois’s proletariat. It’s just the job. And if you put it in terms of race, there’s no way he can win and there’s no way you can win.”
“Survivor’s Remorse” tends not to be a show in which one character wins and another loses; instead, they meet at some unexpected point of compromise. That dynamic becomes particularly interesting in the relationship between Missy and M-Chuck, who come from radically different class backgrounds. M-Chuck enjoys the trappings of her family’s newfound wealth, but she also resents the restrictions on her behavior.
“There’s so much more that she’s exposed to, especially in Season 2, that she wasn’t privy to before,” Ash said of her character’s arc. “And some of her behaviors, she’s called to task on them. Where before, they were still equally bad, now because she’s in the public eye, they’re really brought to light, and they’re everybody’s problems, not an internal thing that she and the family can just brush under the rug. And I think it’s important for her, in her growth, that she understands that there’s still a line.”
Missy, by contrast, is moving in a different direction.
“Reggie is trying to marry up to this girl who was schooled at Miss Porter’s School and went to Vassar, went to school abroad, and her father is in the highest echelon of the halls of power. I imagine her father to be a Vernon Jordan kind of character,” O’Malley said of Missy. “And yet there is an authentic American experience, an African American experience that she’s seeking to get to marrying somebody like Reggie, who hasn’t had anything handed to him, who had to scrape and scrap for everything. Class does come into play. … We don’t want Missy to be the finger-wagging, finger-waving person. I don’t think she’s been exposed to some of the scrappiness that … really is [what] they’re all about. And she thirsts for that.”
She’s liberated by the new environment she finds herself in, even if she’s occasionally scandalized by M-Chuck’s antics, or by Cam’s Uncle Julius (an uproarious Mike Epps). In one scene in the second-season premiere, Missy finds a lawn jockey statue on the new property Cam’s bought in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta. She raises it above her head and gleefully dashes it to pieces. (“They find another one in there,” in a later episode, O’Malley hints. “It’s like a racist Easter egg hunt.”) “The more that I’m around her, the more that I like her,” Julius tells Reggie sagely. “And not to be inappropriate, but I bet she wears you out.”
“I think M-Chuck symbolizes a lot of what Missy would like to be,” Ash said of the characters’ relationships, noting that the show doesn’t take the predictable route of having M-Chuck learn from Missy’s civilizing influence. “She symbolizes the freedom that Missy would like to have. I think M-Chuck symbolizes the freedom a lot of women would like to have, that expression, and not being worried about it. I think the thing, a lot of the time, with ladies, is you feel like you have to maintain this very feminine air, and God forbid you should act out or speak ugly because you might be less attractive, or that’s just not what ladies do. M-Chuck just doesn’t care.”
O’Malley said M-Chuck grew out of his experiences on “Glee,” which won accolades for its depiction of a character coming out in difficult circumstances at home and at school. Although O’Malley felt like that story was an important one to tell, “I just wanted there to be this ballsy, authentic, unapologetic woman who was older than a teenage character, who had already been through some of the struggles,” he told me. “In ‘Glee’ we watched so much struggle, so much pain of Kurt [O’Malley’s on-screen son, played by Chris Colfer], and very real drama. I just wanted to show a character who’d been through it, and her family just loved her, just absolutely loved her.”
By moving on from some of the more predictable stories it’s possible to tell about race, gender and sexual orientation, “Survivor’s Remorse” can push into new territory, often in audacious ways.
For Parris, an exciting storyline in the second season involves the pressure the Calloways put on Missy to start thinking about getting pregnant and facing her anxieties about how she’d fare as a mother. “That’s a real issue that women go through, especially around that age, 20s, early 30s, when people are in your vagina. Or not your vagina, in your womb. ‘Leave me alone! Stay over there and let me and my husband deal with this and talk about this!’ ”
And this season follows up last year’s storyline about corporal punishment with a plot in which M-Chuck socks Cam in the middle of an argument and is forced to become the face of an anti-domestic violence campaign to avoid prosecution. “If you were to see Cam in a relationship or M-Chuck in a relationship or Cassie in a relationship and domestic violence was happening, you know, you could tell the story,” Ash pointed out.
“Survivor’s Remorse” is the kind of show where Julius instructs Cam to “tell Flaherty you got AIDS” to get out of a work commitment; where the scent of success “smells like drunk white people”; and where, when M-Chuck gets sentenced to do roadside trash clean-up as community service, her mother (Tichina Arnold) tells her, “I can’t wait until you find a corpse. Some parent out there will always remember that you solved a cold case and gave them closure. That’s the Lord’s work, Mary Charles.” This world is hilarious and direct, and this fall, more than ever, is a perfect time to spend your Saturday nights there.