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‘Survivor’s Remorse’ didn’t ‘stick to sports’ and that’s what made it great

Starz brought the LeBron James-produced series to an abrupt end on Sunday

Survivor’s Remorse, like so many good things, has come to an end far too quickly, thanks to its network, Starz, which announced recently that it was canceling the show after four seasons.

That leaves fans with quite a few loose ends. But it also leaves a chasm not easily filled in television. Even in an atmosphere of 400-plus scripted shows, there wasn’t anything else that so adroitly married a down-to-earth style with thematic sophistication and told stories about black people; black-ish may come the closest.

The gift of Survivor’s Remorse was that it dared to be a sports comedy that used its premise as the starting point for discussing life and contemporary culture. When I first began watching, I wondered when we were going to see Cam Calloway (Jessie T. Usher) nail a pull-up jumper or lead his team through a challenging postseason. After all, the show was built around Calloway’s life in Atlanta as a franchise player for a professional basketball team.

But Survivor’s Remorse was more interested in telling a story about the jump from extreme poverty to sudden wealth, and the complications that arise as a result. Thus, we were introduced to not only Cam but also his mother, Cassie (Tichina Arnold); his sister Mary Charles, known as M-Chuck (Erica Ash); his cousin/manager Reggie (RonReaco Lee); Reggie’s wife, Missy (Teyonah Parris); and their uncle Julius (Mike Epps). When Cam experienced a come-up, so did his family, and they all moved together from Boston to Atlanta. On top of all that, Cam’s relationships with his bosses, team owner Jimmy Flaherty (Chris Bauer) and Chinese shoe company impresario Da Chen Bao (Robert Wu) were complicated by their personal involvement with his family. Flaherty became a friend, mentor and father figure to M-Chuck, while Chen fell in love with Cassie.

The show was unconventional, creatively profane and always willing to “go there.” That was even more of a surprise knowing that the show was executive produced by LeBron James, who is committed to more forays into media with his new production company, Uninterrupted. (Uninterrupted was the company behind The Carter Effect, the documentary about Vince Carter that recently debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival.)

Even though work on the series often overlapped with James’ sports schedule, he became more involved as it progressed, from OK’ing showrunner Mike O’Malley’s initial pitches to offering more personal input as their relationship evolved. James would visit the set in Atlanta, which surprised O’Malley. “This is not a retired athlete. This is a guy at the height of his game,” O’Malley said.

And where more squeamish producers might have pulled rank to exercise control over tricky, controversial storylines, James was willing to embrace the creative freedom of O’Malley and the Survivor’s Remorse writers room. He also offered insight into how to make the sports business angle accurate and relatable.

“He was really responsive to the story about Reggie and Cam renegotiating the contract with Jimmy Flaherty in season three,” O’Malley said Monday. “We would go and pitch him … when you’d see his eyes light up, you’d know there was something there … he never said no. He never resisted a story, which was great, considering the stuff we were doing. He’s a massively famous person who has a tremendous amount of, not just young kids who look up to him, but people like myself who are 20 years older than him. He’s really a remarkable guy.”

Survivor’s Remorse didn’t surrender to cliché and become a bacchanalia of loose women, fast cars and cocaine-fueled partying with little else to say. In fact, Survivor’s Remorse wasn’t really interested in that at all (although Uncle Julius was). It was interested in being a different show from Ballers and its predecessor, Ballers in Hollywood — I mean, Entourage.

“That title [Survivor’s Remorse] became something that wasn’t necessarily just about Cam and him being a big-hearted guy who wanted to help people and always wanted to help people,” O’Malley said. “It was, what was Reggie surviving in terms of his father’s alcoholism and physical abuse? What was Cassie surviving and trying to forge? What was M-Chuck surviving and trying to forget? And when you begin to take on those stories, it’s amazing what it opens up in terms of people talking about things.”

As it broadened its ambitions from wrapping up plots within the 25-30 minutes of a given episode to multi-episode storylines, Survivor’s Remorse developed a reputation for addressing complex, difficult issues. That included stories about domestic violence, sexual assault, intergenerational trauma, abortion, religion, the prison-industrial complex, atheism, class and poverty, intraracial colorism and female genital mutilation. What’s more, its approach was reliably unpredictable. When domestic violence came up, it wasn’t about a violent athlete abusing his girlfriend. It was about M-Chuck beating up her big brother after he required that change be used in the soda machine that a sponsor gifted to him for use in his mansion. The sodas used to be free, but everyone kept wasting them. And so it was M-Chuck who had to make the public mea culpas after harming the family’s meal ticket.

“As a writer, I love when people say, ‘You can’t write about that,’ ” O’Malley said. “Because I just think about, ‘Why?’ ”

O’Malley didn’t know Cassie would have such a traumatic backstory — she was raped at a party by three boys on Long Island as a teen, which resulted in M-Chuck’s conception — when he created her, but he found ways to stretch the talents of Arnold and the rest of a versatile corps of veteran television actors. Lee was a mainstay on the ’90s sitcom Sister, Sister. Everyone remembers Arnold from Martin and Everybody Hates Chris. Epps, familiar from a long career in movies and stand-up comedy, was the uncle every black person has met at a fish fry, family reunion or cookout.

The show’s ratings, including three days of delayed viewing, had fallen to roughly 600,000 viewers per episode, a significant drop-off from the season three premiere, which netted 883,000 viewers. Although it initially scheduled the season four finale for Oct. 22, the network pushed up the airdate and the last episode of the show aired Oct. 15. Even with a Sunday lineup that included Power and Outlander, Starz was chasing the buzz of HBO. Especially whenever it was competing against new episodes of Game of Thrones.

O’Malley was disappointed about the abrupt end, which left us with questions, for starters, about the future of Cam’s relationships with Allison and Reggie. Reggie had secretly moved ahead on the school redevelopment deal without Cam. And Allison, who wasn’t interested in being just a basketball wife, was beginning to have doubts about her place in Cam’s life.

O’Malley had been imagining storylines for another two seasons and offered his thoughts on where his characters’ lives would have gone.

Missy and Reggie: “I really wanted to show people who love each other in this show. Reggie and Missy, they love each other. They were not going to be broken up by some infidelity. They were going to have kids, and they were going to be great parents, and they were going to love one another because I know relationships that work like that and I thought it was important to portray that relationship like that. As people on the staff started commenting on how important this relationship of Reggie and Missy was to people, I became even more invested in it. I became more invested in showing this loving couple who knew how to fight without being mean to one another, knew how to have intellectually stimulating conversation and disputes and yet were still massively attracted to one another and loved one another. I think that would have continued.”

Cassie and Chen: “Cassie probably would have ended up with Chen. I think it would have been challenging for them because I think Chen wanted to have his own children, and we were anxious about Cassie then wanting to have a child. If M-Chuck was conceived the way that she was conceived and Cam was conceived when she was … 17, there was an interesting storyline about what would it be like for her to be an adult woman and have a child in a committed adult relationship.”

Allison and Cam: “I think that Cam and Allison would have continued to have their challenges, but the challenges were written in the stars, not how they related to one another and loved one another. It was very interesting, just the comments over the last couple nights. People just couldn’t believe Allison would maybe walk away from a relationship just because she felt she couldn’t live her own life, and that’s just astonishing to me. There are some people who can’t be bought, and she’s one of them. Some people don’t get that. They don’t think that. And maybe it’s because they think money is the most important thing. What we were trying to show with Allison is that money is not the most important thing to her. It doesn’t mean she didn’t like it all, but she was her own woman. I think that ultimately they would have ended up together no matter when the series ended, but I think they were going to have some challenges over the next year because I think their relationship was real. I think that Cam was looking to break out on his own and have his own family, and I think sometimes people can be so ready to grow up that they can try to fast-forward a relationship to a place where it’s not necessarily there. I think that relationship would have had to go through some tension and some struggle, and maybe even people going away from one another before they came back and realized that what they had was very real.”

M-Chuck: “We were trying to get M-Chuck to being in a happy relationship, a committed relationship where she settled down. I think she would have been a great mom.”

O’Malley has moved on to other work — he co-wrote the book for the new Jimmy Buffett musical Escape to Margaritaville, which heads to Broadway next year. But the showrunner, who also has a long career as an actor, could not stop gushing about the cast. And his ache for a more complete ending to Survivor’s Remorse is palpable.

“I’m 50, and I’ve been doing this half of my life,” O’Malley said. “It’s hard to get something where you have the perfect cast, and so that’s why I’m sad. … Even in this landscape of 400 television shows, it’s hard to get something going that feels unique and new and feels like you have something to say. And then this alchemy happens where this perfect cast falls into your lap — not without a lot of searching, but that’s what people do. Every day in our business, people wake up and try to put together the best project possible. And they don’t put together crappy projects because that’s what their goal is. Their goal is to make something amazing. And yet, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. For me, what’s sad about this ending prematurely, to me, is knowing what we had.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.