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‘Survivor’s Remorse’ recap: beware the outrage machine

In the age of umbrage, everybody’s a critic

Season 3, Episode 4 | “The Age of Umbrage” | Aug. 7

How many times have we witnessed the following situation play out, usually aided by a wildfire of internet outrage?

  • Someone — usually a public figure, but not always — expresses a thought, perhaps rather unartfully, but not maliciously.
  • Another person gets offended and calls the first figure on the carpet.
  • No one is happy until the offending party has been appropriately chastened and is forced to make a public apology, and then we all feel better about ourselves and move on.

This week’s episode of Survivor’s Remorse is the start of an interesting arc about public outrage and self-righteousness.

Cam (Jessie T. Usher) does an interview with New Hampshire Public Radio and talks about how he wants to start a foundation in his late Uncle Julius’ name to help children, specifically children with “frozen nostril syndrome.” Frozen nostril syndrome is not a real thing, by the way — I Googled it just to be sure. But because Cam “bazookas the f—— perimeter” of his life with F-bombs, as his boss, Jimmy Flaherty (Chris Bauer) says, Cam makes the mistake of saying that frozen nostril syndrome is “f—– up.”

One person with a giant platform, in this case, a television sports commentator named Carnation Stevens, names Cam as her “Scumbag of the Week.” Stevens tells her viewers that Cam is a terrible person for saying that kids with frozen nostril syndrome are “f—– up,” and all of a sudden, Cam is embroiled in a full-fledged outrage storm, and is forced to apologize for something that he never truly did in the first place. He’s not happy about it, either.

'Survivor's Remorse' showrunner Mike O'Malley.

‘Survivor’s Remorse’ showrunner Mike O’Malley.

Courtesy of Starz

“In episode four, what I wanted to look at was just the mercilessness that we, as human beings, have for one another, when we make mistakes, or we misspeak, or we say something that isn’t really well thought out,” Survivor’s Remorse showrunner Mike O’Malley told me in a recent interview. “Or even if we say something that’s unkind, and then we apologize for it. People just don’t want to ever let anybody forget it. What does that say about us? That we’re human beings, we sin, we make mistakes, we mess up, we hurt one another, we break one another’s hearts, we get into fistfights. Being a human being is about — unless you’re my mother — it’s about being somebody who apologizes to people. Right? I think that it’s really, really hard to be in the public and really, really candid, and also be truthful and smart.”

So much of our public discourse, especially in places that rely on 24/7 audiences, such as the internet and cable news, revolves around a perpetual outrage cycle. Self-righteous anger is a seductive emotion, and it’s easy to use it to manipulate people, even when the facts aren’t in your favor. See: Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly’s recent attempt to instigate controversy and upbraid first lady Michelle Obama for saying that she lives in a house built by slaves. O’Malley is frustrated with the lack of generosity people seem to have for one another. He told me he was partially inspired to write the “The Age of Umbrage” after reading Jon Ronson’s recent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

The pivotal and most telling scene in this week’s episode takes place when we see a mother of a child with frozen nostril syndrome lather herself into a hurricane of motherly fury to tape a YouTube video admonishing Cam and demanding an apology from him. She’s doing this, of course, after seeing Carnation Stevens’ takedown of Cam.

“I think you can be even angrier,” says the friend who’s taping her.

“Oh, OK,” says the mother, before shaking herself off and starting a new take.

Sure, there’s some real emotion behind her words, but there’s an element of performance, too.

If there’s anyone who’s managed to throw a wrench into the traditional plot structure of the outrage cycle, it’s Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Trump has managed to succeed in bringing both Democrats and Republicans together after repeatedly insulting Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan. His nastiness managed to elicit real, across-the-board umbrage, not the performative stuff that usually occupies the airwaves.

But performative or not, this need to publicly shame people and bring them to heel is something that carries real implications in our culture. Steve Ballmer now owns the Los Angeles Clippers because of it. As ESPN’s Bomani Jones pointed out at the time, former owner Donald Sterling didn’t lose the Clippers because of court-documented discriminatory housing practices — the act of perpetuating systemic racism. He lost the Clippers because he was caught on tape making racist statements to his mistress.

That’s always the danger of drinking from the outrage hose. We get distracted from bigger, more complicated, more intractable problems — and by extension, finding solutions to those problems — by chasing after the pustules of societal ills that bubble up to the surface and grab our attention. We yell at the guy who says frozen nostril syndrome is “f—– up” and forget about the actual kids with frozen nostril syndrome.

When Cam finally concedes to giving a real public apology, even though he doesn’t think it’s fair, he conscripts the very people who are using him to score points by publicly criticizing him into donating their time and money to frozen nostril syndrome kids, too — something they clearly hadn’t banked on.

It was satisfying to see the show give Cam the opportunity to slyly and publicly turn the screws on the leaders of his own pitchfork-wielding mob, but O’Malley didn’t necessarily see it that way. “Forgiveness is this massive thing, right? Forgiveness is so important,” O’Malley said. “Some people think it makes you soft if you forgive people, but … I’m just trying to show these characters making mistakes, realizing they’ve made mistakes, and trying to find in those things they do or say, wisdom and growth.

“I would say that [Cam’s] pride gets in the way, right? I’d say, at the end of the episode, when he calls the other people, the congressman on his s— … he can’t just apologize. He’s got to win. He’s got to one-up them, right?”

Odds and ends

  • Why do Cam, Reggie (RonReaco Lee), and Jimmy Flaherty always have meetings on the floor of the empty arena where Cam plays, as opposed to Jimmy’s office, or at the practice facility? It does remind us that Cam plays basketball — and that he actually goes to work — but it’s a little weird, right?

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.