Money, Strippers, Faith: We Don't Deserve RonReaco Lee and the Survivor's Remorse Performance He's Giving

TV Features Survivor's Remorse
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Money, Strippers, Faith: We Don't Deserve RonReaco Lee and the <i>Survivor's Remorse</i> Performance He's Giving

Two days ago I wrote about the distinctive lack of broke people on TV today, and Hollywood’s insistence of normalizing wealth on the small screen. It was necessary to bring up Survivor’s Remorse in an inventory of shows starring black characters who are rich or wealthy. But unlike many of the other shows mentioned, the Starz comedy often works class issues into its plot and into much of its dialogue. This doesn’t make it the exception to the “no broke people on TV” rule, but it does make the financial status of the Calloways far more bearable. So much of this show is about “new money” and how new money impacts an individual, his family, and his mentality.

In the latest episode, “Mystery Team,” my favorite character, RonReaco Lee’s Reggie Vaughn, delivered one of my favorite TV monologues of the year, and it was all about the money. Why should a critic care so much about money and whether or not it’s acknowledged on her favorite TV shows? Because, like every single person who’s been broke, or who is currently broke, I know that money is everything. And Reggie knows it too:

“I’m not cold. I just realize what you should realize, and that is: everything dies. Everything is bullshit, except money. Money goes on. Money protects you. It bends the world to your will. It’s a bodyguard, it is a weapon. It is the only thing that matters. And the best thing, cousin? Like, the best thing—is that money never, ever breaks your heart.”

This Golden Age of TV is so beloved for all of the beautiful scenes, ideas, moments and unforgettable monologues, and yet there are so few references to the very thing that streams all of these beautiful things into our homes and onto our devices every day: money. Peak TV may have this idyllic, TV utopia-esque bent, but all of this wouldn’t be possible without the money that makes our favorite shows go ‘round. So why, in America and beyond, do we still love to pretend that money doesn’t inform practically everything, or have its hands in practically everything?

It’s a point that Survivor’s Remorse has tried to drive home throughout its three seasons. When Uncle Julius died, was it inadvertently Cam’s fault for getting rich? He never would have bought that Escalade, if he wasn’t making so much money. Would Missy be the smartest, most talented, unemployed member of the family, if Reggie weren’t raking in the cash as Cam’s manager? How much of her decision to leave her job and support Reggie was a decision born out of privilege? Survivor’s Remorse also begs us to ask what the guy who made it out owes to everyone else around him. In “Mystery Team” Cam believes he should keep his head down, and continue to play for his current team, and for the team’s owner Jimmy Flaherty (Chris Bauer, who is also fantastic in this episode). Reggie believes they should always, always be demanding more, and that the negotiation process doesn’t have to be clean—that it can’t be, in fact, for it to be most effective.

“You want the money. Now it ain’t flattering to admit it. But you do—for you, for family, and so you can give it away with that beautiful impulsiveness that is only you. So sit the fuck down. Shut the fuck up. And just let me get it for you.”

The money monologue (reminiscent, perhaps, of DMX’s classic Belly rant, concluding in, “Ain’t no purpose, dog. It’s money. We born to f— die! In the meantime: get money.”) could have been delivered by just about anyone, and I would have applauded its very existence. But RonReaco Lee works in such a way that, even if you’ve never been broke, even if you don’t understand the words coming out of his mouth—his performance makes you want to believe him. It’s the grimace he can’t hold back—and the fury, really—when he snarls, “Shut the fuck up,” at Cam. In that snarl we see a lifetime of broke-ness that Reggie experienced in Boston, long before Cam got drafted. Reggie is never, ever going back to that and he knows that the only way to ensure this, is to go from new money to long money—and you don’t accomplish that by playing nice with the owner of a basketball team (who’s also out to get his own long money), no matter how much he comes off like a family friend. Lee’s delivery here is as good as anything he’s done on Survivor’s Remorse, and this acknowledgement of his distinctive style as Reggie—a bravado and confidence that is somehow patient, calculating and passionate—is simply long overdue.

If Lee didn’t do anything else for the rest of the episode, I would have written this exact same piece about his excellence as an actor. I still would have insisted that people take notice, and start casting him in all of the things, so we can see what else he’s capable of doing. But then the writers of Survivor’s Remorse sent him to the Clermont Lounge, and I was reminded of this other aspect of the show that I love—it’s sheer ridiculousness. After a moving speech about how cash rules everything around us, Reggie meets the “upsettingly beautiful” (Flaherty’s apt descriptor) Isa at the most incredible strip club ever. In fact, it’s the precise strip club Reggie would have to go to, to redeem the character after his seemingly heartless speech about money. How can we read him as “cold,” when he’s the kind of straight man, who can sit, drink and enjoy the campy theater of a “home for brokedown strippers”—women with real bodies as opposed to stripper bodies, and all over the age of 40? A man like that (who even warmly warns the stripper with the sparklers on her nipples—”Be careful, you’re gonna burn yourself”) is, clearly, all heart. How can you not believe in this guy’s intentions?

Kenny Herzog of Vulture wrote about how the question of faith plays into this episode. I believe Squeeze and Cassie had the best religious-themed exchange at Palm Sunday dinner, with Squeeze toasting, “Give it up for Jesus! He have a tough week ahead of him!” And then there’s Cassie, reminding him, “You know he doesn’t fuckin’ die every year, right? He died once, he rose again. That’s it. Cheers!”

However, it’s not Jesus, but Reggie Vaughn who teaches us what we need to know about faith this week. Given the way the story unfolds, and the anxiety-inducing negotiation moves Reggie makes in attempt to secure Cam the best possible contract, it’s easy to side with Cam, Cassie, M-Chuck and even Missy—all of whom struggle to muster even a mustard seed of faith in Reggie’s plan. Of course, everyone celebrates the end result: Reggie wins and Cam gets the perfect deal. But faith isn’t the act of praise or celebration, when things work out. It’s “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” and we get a glimpse of it, when Cam decides to stick with his cousin, after the first botched attempt to get Flaherty to fear the “mystery team,” and give Cam the deal. But even Cam may have been lead more by strong (and occasionally blind), familial loyalty than actual faith. Reggie? Reggie has faith. It’s why he risked it all to get Cam the deal (and then a better deal), and it’s why he knew to tell Squeeze to open the front door before midnight. Reggie may not have faith in an almighty God, or the almighty basketball manager—and, in spite of his speech, it’s clear that Reggie’s faith doesn’t lie solely in the almighty dollar. Nobody believes in the worth of the Calloways and co. (and, in the power of a good mystery team) like Reggie Vaughn. And nobody could deliver this fascinating, strange, man of faith, quite like Lee.

Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.