Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Three episodes into the second season.
Suburbs and gated communities are a terribly clichéd subject of satire in American pop culture, and some elements of The Riches suggest that its take on the well-worn material will be a shallow one. The setting, for example, is Eden Falls, Louisiana—almost as hilariously on-the-nose as Icarus, the name of the doomed sun-bound spaceship in Danny Boyle’s creepy Sunshine.
But intriguingly, beguilingly, The Riches goes beyond such cheap gags. The convoluted storyline relies on a number of extraordinary coincidences, but suspending disbelief is worth the effort. This is drama that understands what most of its satiric cousins don’t: the suburbs are fertile ground for satire not because they offer the opportunity to lampoon a certain class of people—that isn’t what The Riches does—but because they offer the opportunity to appraise people in general, the human condition: the substance of our dreams, what we’re willing to sacrifice to achieve them, and whether those dreams make us happy.
I realize that might sound ponderous, but The Riches is anything but because—in a brilliant stroke—the lens through with creator Dmitry Lipkin chooses to examine all that dreaming is a family of grifters, and grifters—deceptive and loyal, meticulous and quick-thinking—are inherently interesting, especially when they’re played by Eddie Izzard, Minnie Driver, and a trio of top-notch young actors.
Izzard and company play the Malloys, a family of Travelers (better, if inaccurately, known as Gypsies of Irish descent) who live in a RV and pull con games together to make ends meet. In the pilot, they are involved in a horrific car accident that leaves a Buffer (non-Traveler) couple dead. The couple, the Riches, were en route to their new home in Eden Falls, where no one knows them, and in an audacious move, the Malloys assume the Riches’ identity. They have a variety of reasons for doing this—Wayne (Izzard) is a persona non grata among their larger Traveler clan, and Dahlia (Driver) has broken her parole—but ultimately it comes down to Wayne’s desire to give his children freedom: the freedom to do anything they want with their lives. He tells them he wants to “steal the American dream.”
Of course, “freedom” can mean a lot of things, and one of the most fascinating things about The Riches is the way the show handles that. The power and financial resources the Malloys steal give them freedom to send their children to a good school, freedom to live in a luxurious house, but they must give up freedoms, too, as part of their Buffer life. Dahlia loses her collaborative work partnership with her husband, who is faking his way through a career as a lawyer to a corrupt real estate mogul, Hugh (Gregg Henry). Older son Cael (Noel Fisher) misses the freedom of the open road. Daughter Di Di (Shannon Marie Woodward) chafes under the restrictions of life as a suburban teen. And younger son Sam (Aidan Mitchell), a sensitive boy with an amorphous gender identity, loses the freedom to dress as a girl when the mood strikes.
Besides those losses, the whole family is always on the verge of exposure, especially after Dahlia’s skeezy cousin Dale (Todd Stashwick) tracks them down. They manage to bail themselves out, time and time again, with the same kind of ingratiating, duplicitous, resourceful gamesmanship that made then successful as grifters (their cons are invariably fascinating), but such games are not without cost. As the second season opens, the family chooses (not unanimously) to return to Eden Falls, despite markedly elevated danger, to pursue one last big payday, and Cael bitterly points out that the family’s refrain about their marks—“Every man has his price”—now clearly applies to them as well.
The turn here is fascinating. The best cons play on greed (as implied by the familiar line “You can’t cheat an honest man”), and though the Malloys justify their thefts and disdain their marks for that foolish greed, they are hardly immune to it. They become their own marks. Yet greed is too simple a word for the motivation here. The Riches doesn’t dismiss the “American dream” the Malloys and their neighbors are chasing; it just recognizes the complications inherent in that jumble of optimism and materialism, confidence and entitlement, adventurousness and recklessness, independence and selfishness.
Izzard is the heart of The Riches. As in his stand-up, you can see the sharp intelligence in his eyes, and that makes Wayne Malloy a con artist of the first order. And the rest of the cast follows his lead. Izzard and Driver have a wonderfully tangled, true-to-life rapport with the actors who play their children; the Malloys feel like a family, however strained.
Darkly humorous and sometimes just dark (a recent scene in which Dahlia, Cael, and Di Di’s con fell apart in front an angry mob was downright nightmarish), The Riches isn’t always a great show. Even setting aside the whopper of a premise, it probably does rely too much on coincidence, and the nick-of-time escapes can strain credibility. But the characters are so interesting and the essential themes so provocative and heartfelt that those flaws don’t matter much in the end. Even when the plot twists are vaguely fraudulent, the core of the show is beautifully real.