SPOILER ALERT: This post contains details of the literal s***show of tonight’s Heels Season 1 finale.
In the end, the battle in the State Fair ring between feuding brothers Jack Spade and Ace Spade saw neither holding the coveted belt in the Season 1 finale of Heels.
With a sh*t-stained Wild Bill Hancock (Chris Bauer) taking down the crazed wrestling league rival Charlie Gully, the Stephen Amell- and Alexander Ludwig-portrayed heel and face of the Duffy Wrestling League were on their asses in the ring as former valet Crystal (Keli Berglund) tossed the script, won the match, won over the crowd and claimed the ladder to take the belt in front of thousands of Peach State fans.
It was a fitting end for the Michael Waldron-created and Mike O’Malley-showrun series that has yet to receive an official Season 2 renewal from Starz. Even more so perhaps after a grueling production run under the shadow of the pandemic.
Having debuted August 15 (see my review here) on the Lionsgate-owned premium cabler, Heels takes viewers behind the curtain in the glitz-free world of regional wrestling where every spontaneous move is planned and almost everyone is looking for a way out and up to the big time.
Executive produced by Waldron and O’Malley, with Peter Segal, who also directs several episodes, the series finds Arrow vet Amell and Hunger Games alum Ludwig as very different brothers who battle inside and outside the ring in the aftermath of the suicide of their domineering DWL-founding father. Along with Berglund and Bauer, Heels also stars Alison Luff, Mary McCormack, Allen Maldonado and James Harrison.
A Starz alum from the underrated Survivor’s Remorse he created and an Emmy nominated Glee vet on the other side of the camera, O’Malley sat down with me to pull back even more of the curtain on Heels. Detailing how he came to partner with Loki EP Waldron, O’Malley also lays out how he became Gully, how the show got made and what might be for a second season.
DEADLINE: So, a lot went down in that finale, and I don’t just mean Ace’s ego or Wild Bill’s bowels. So where does this set Heels up for a Season 2 if you get one?
O’MALLEY: What makes Heels relatable to people is that they’re people in a small town who have a dream. Like anyone who wants to become a musician, or an actor, or a successful athlete, they start somewhere, and they want to take what they believe in and make their dreams come true, and in the last, you know, throughout the season of Heels, we watch these brothers work with their friends and colleagues to turn this thing that they love into something really successful.
The sad part is, and this is a big part of a second season if we get one, we see this in our business all the time, is that along the way, you lose things, and if what you gain by having the success of a massive, you know, opportunity, a big night, a big show, a little bit of financial success on the horizon, and you lose your brother, and you lose your family because of it, you lose your wife and your son, and you lose your brother. I personally think that that’s too steep of a price to pay.
DEADLINE: Okay, but as the showrunner, these stakes are not a mere notion, they’re narrative fuel for the pump, right?
O’MALLEY: Yes, and I think what Jack has to look at is I have this business that could become very successful. Now, because of the advent of streaming services and different outlets that are looking to acquire different businesses and build up their suite of entertainment assets and that it’s a great time because you can actually produce good-quality stuff if you have the ambition to do so. But, the danger is that that success in business takes you away from spending time and effort being a father, being a husband, being a good son.
DEADLINE: None of which he is succeeding at in tonight’s “Double Turn” episode?
O’MALLEY: Not at all.
I really, I mean this 100% sincerely, this is what Jack Spade realizes is that he also is all these people who are looking towards him He is the proprietor of a business. Because of his time and energy and attention, it has turned into something that could possibly make other people’s dreams come true, and everyone is interacting with him, yes, on a level where they want their own things to succeed, and there is the mutual goal of raising up this Duffy Wrestling League to be something successful for themselves, but they also have all of their…successful as a group thing, rising tide lifting all boats, but they also want what they want.
He wants to be a guy who is in the town and helps people out and builds this thing, and the DWL in his building and life, and it takes care of people. But he also has the ambition of that Jimmy Stewart character.
DEADLINE: What do you mean? Mr. Smith goes wrestling?
O’MALLEY: You know, where he wants to go out and be recognized, and that’s the thing that I think is also at the heart of this show is. That for these guys, can I be seen, can I be recognized, can I be, you know, applauded for my singular greatness? Every individual wants that to some degree, but it’s certainly at the heart of these characters.
DEADLINE: Now, Heels was conceived by Michael Waldron, who was one of the main creative forces behind Disney+’s Loki this year and co-wrote the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feature – aka a very busy guy. As the Heels showrunner and a regular as Florida Wrestling Dystopia’s flamboyant boss Charlie Gulley, what was that relationship like with him over this first season?
O’MALLEY: Working with Michael was terrific.
About two years ago, after I had had such a great experience doing Survivor’s Remorse with Starz, when Carmi Zlotnik and Jeff Hirsch first reached out to me and said would you like to come on and work with Michael? He’s got these other obligations, but you know, we think that it would be a great collaboration, and it was great. He and his writing staff had already broken a lot of the stories were broken. A lot of what you see that was in this season remains unchanged.
Obviously, as we cast people, and we got locations, and changed that around a little bit, there were different things that got changed, and there was Covid. But, basically a lot of what I was doing was trying to get those scripts which were a little bit longer, you know, some of those early scripts, just getting it down to manageable size And that wasn’t hard because they were really great. Michael was incredibly supportive of me, and we just kind of went back and forth and you know rewrote and tweaked the scripts as we went through.
DEADLINE: Sounds like a very fluid situation, on many levels …
O’MALLEY: Well, of course, you know, once you go into production, you get notes from actors, you get notes from other people, things in the light of day change, you know, you write towards different actors’ strengths. I think that that’s what happened for every single actor on this show. As the show evolved and was in production, we started to really write towards… I think that what was fun about coming on and working on it with Michael is, you know, once we cast the actors and we started to…and they bring so much of the life, you see the strengths that each actor brings to it, and you shape the characters even more, and that’s something that happens with myself, Michael Waldron, Pete Segal, the director, and then all the actors, and it was truly a spirit of collaboration. Also, part of it was because we were down there in Georgia during the pandemic. None of us could leave.
DEADLINE: You were literally in a bubble?
O’MALLEY: You know, Dominic, I live in Los Angeles. I have three teenagers. I couldn’t come home. That was another reason I, you know, I wanted to play Charlie Gully. I was like, wait a minute, I’m going to be down here, and I’m going to be working with all these great actors, I want to be on camera. You know the great thing about being a showrunner is that you get to be involved with everything, but acting is way more fun. When you are an actor, you know, I am only a writer and actor because I am not a professional athlete, and that was going to become obvious to me around my junior year in high school that that was not going to happen.
But in this type of scenario, you feel like you’re on a team. You’re doing everything together.
I love to be in a cast with people, like I am in Snowpiercer, or on Glee, or in Yes, Dear. All of the shows that I did, I loved being together with people, hey, let’s go to work, let’s do the scene today, and you really feel like you are a part of something. When you’re a showrunner, you are apart from people, somewhat. You are making decisions. You are…someone has a suggestion that they think is great, and you know, sometimes you’re taking it, sometimes you’re not. This was so much more, and I loved it.
DEADLINE: You’ve been on both sides of the camera over your career, that’s nothing new. But did you worry jumping in like this, with this big a character, at least in terms of personality, could rub some people the wrong way?
O’MALLEY: Actually, wasn’t even my idea.
O’MALLEY: No. Pete Segal was the first guy who thought about it. I was just reading at auditions, and him and Kim Coleman, who’s the freaking amazing casting director, you know, they just said you should play this guy, and you know, I mean, I know that I’m capable.
But look, I knew also how it would look. It was like, yeah, I want to be this guy, but that, again, goes to Michael Waldron. He was very supportive of me. I was probably not the first guy he had in mind to play that part, but he supported me, and that was important to get his endorsement because this is, you know, at the core of it, it’s his story.
DEADLINE: You certainly went to town and toe-to-toe with Stephen, Alexander and Mary …
O’MALLEY: (laughs) Well, thank you. I love playing it. It is fun. He’s a little bit of the villain in the show. If we do a second season, it’s all going to depend on how much…if I can’t come back and forth, so, literally, I was in Atlanta for a year. But if I can’t travel home to the degree that I want to on weekends, etcetera, you may end up seeing much more Gully than possible. So, there is…but in terms of the actual story of the show, I believe this. I believe that there is a comeuppance that Jack Spade still deserves for expressing himself with physical violence. There is a comeuppance that needs to come to people who believe that, even heroes, and you know, so, Charlie Gully is going to have something to say about it.
DEADLINE: Talking about a possible second season and Crystal now holding the belt over the boys, you guys were under the sword of Corona Damocles during Season 1. Very heavy safety protocols for a show that by its very nature demands a lot of up-close contact. How are things going to change for a second cycle?
O’MALLEY: Truth man, I don’t think it’s going to change for Season 2, no.
I think this will continue, if we go into production in March, I think that everyone will be wearing masks at least for another year. I don’t see how you can’t be doing it any other way. I think that our business, more than other businesses, has diverse range of ages, You know, just everyone is out there, working, and there is, you know, crews can have people from the age of, you know, 18 to freaking 80, and you know, 15 to 80. You know we got a kid who’s 8 years old on our show. We have to be safe.
I just think I, for work, keeping people healthy, what could be more important? You look at this, Dominic, with what’s going on with IATSE right now. People are talking about rest and long days, which, 100 percent, we need it. Well, why wouldn’t that also extend to keeping people healthy? I’m not saying it doesn’t. I think it should, but that’s the most important thing.
DEADLINE: With all the challenges you had pulling this show off, what’s the biggest takeaway for you if this ends up being a one-and-done?
O’MALLEY: You know, the cast of this show, the things that they’ve had to do in terms of getting physically ready with their bodies to learn how to wrestle, especially the guys who wrestle, and then to carry the voluminous amount of dialogue that oftentimes I am this person who shoves it in their mouth because I love actors, this show is playing because of them.
Because of how much they’ve dedicated this, themselves, to this show.
As a writer, you’re always looking for actors who can elevate the material We have great scripts, and obviously, I’m proud of my own writing, and Michael Waldron is an incredible writer, who’s extremely accomplished, and Pete Segal, and Jessica Lowrey have just absolutely crushed it.
But these actors are the ones who had to expose themselves in the way that they did So, when I look back on the season, and I think about the inherent trust that they had to have in the health and safety team, and doing this. Knowing that they were going to be close quarters with people who were breathing, and knowing that being in close quarters with people that you didn’t know who were breathing was a leap of faith on a set for a television show.
The thing I want everyone…one of the reasons I want everyone to watch the show is because of their work. I think they’ve all done incredible work, all of them.
The team. Plenty more not pictured. Lots behind the scenes that go unsung. We made a thing. We hope you liked it. I know we did. Watch the finale tonight on @STARZ at 9pm ET #heelsSTARZ @HeelsSTARZ pic.twitter.com/zgxI8R48Op
— player/coach (@CMPunk) October 10, 2021