New FX series follows con artist family

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April 14, 2007

12:41 PM

There’s a curious, though not altogether unappealing incongruity that initially appears in FX’s new weekly series, “The Riches.” From the two lead British actors portraying Southern American parents to the sometimes disjointed juxtaposition of comic, tragic and comically tragic scenes, nothing quite matches up.

p. Of course, in a way, this is right in line with the show’s premise: a family of travelling thieves, through a series of bizarre and violent events, end up impersonating a dead couple and living in their recently bought home located in the aptly named Eden Falls gated community. They do not match up with the normal, law-abiding lifestyle of the citizenry. Thus, they “live off the grid,” as we’re told in the show’s opener, not having Social Security numbers, not paying taxes and, naturally, conning the hell out of nearly every “buffer” (non-thief) they come across. This premise provides plenty of fertile ground for drama, intrigue and comedy to grow, and the family in question seems ripe with enough character to allow for the blooming of these entertaining elements.

p. There’s Wayne Malloy, the silver-tongued father, played by Eddie Izzard (a British comedian probably best known Stateside for his cross-dressing stand-up comedy). There’s Dahilia Malloy, the explosive, recently paroled mother played by Minnie Driver (“Good Will Hunting”). And there’s their three equally criminally talented children, the smallest of which, a young boy, has a predilection towards wearing women’s clothing (hey, it helps to keep their identities secret during scams … and he just likes it).
This motley family is not alone in their lifestyle. There are plenty of other travellers, as they term themselves, who form a larger mafia-style family, complete with a loose — and as we soon find out, uncertain — hierarchy and arranged marriages for solidifying wealth and power.

p. The Malloys’ transformation into the Riches begins in the first episode at the traveller camp that assembles to celebrate Dahlia’s return from prison. While she is warmly welcomed by all, Wayne has a run-in with Dahlia’s cousin, a hostile, head-of-family hopeful named Dale Malloy, played by Todd Stashwick (“You, Me and Dupree”). Their violent encounter convinces Wayne that his family needs a change of lifestyle. So, after pilfering the traveller camp’s “family funds,” they slip away for a nearly foiled escape that ends in the accidental death of the Riches. This begins their biggest con yet: the stealing of the American dream by impersonating the dead couple in their home and living just like regular “buffers” (aside from the whole impersonating-a-dead-family bit).

p. The above sequence of events that serves as the story’s foundation perfectly illustrates the off-kilter and, at first, off-putting aspects of the show. Dahlia, fresh out of prison and appearing with half-tousled, half-cornrowed hair at the traveller camp, presents an arresting image, especially for those who know that the actress portraying her is anything but Southern. Her character stands in stark contrast to her (usually) easygoing, “half-breed” husband. Their pairing seems strange from both a purely physical perspective (Dahlia is way taller) to, more importantly, differences in personality. They soon display a definite chemistry, however, that overcomes the initial awkwardness of the first few episodes.

p. But what is really so rattling about the first show is its blitzkrieg transition from happy reunion to freak tragedy to fortuitous opportunity. The scene wherein the real Riches meet their untimely fate, and the Malloys their fortune, is a perplexing potpourri of horror, apparent frustration and solemn resolve to capitalize on the situation. It is an abrupt and puzzling situation — there’s an “aw, shucks” sentiment expressed by some of the characters that can’t quite reconcile with the obvious remorse displayed by the others. They all soon recover (immediately, in fact, in the next scene) and are on their way to investigate the Riches’ house — a flow of events that feels entirely forced.

p. In the next few episodes, however, these originally incongruent elements begin to form a more organic, but nonetheless off-beat drama. Particularly in the latest episode, something reminiscent of regularity develops in the show’s pacing. With the premise fully explained, an exploration on suburban living that seems at least part of the show’s underlying purpose begins to unfold. In an exchange between Wayne and his oldest son Cael, who is noticeably upset with their change of lifestyle, Wayne remarks, “Everything was simpler in the RV.” There are other hints of this rumination on suburban living and, along with the show’s gripping storyline, proves worthwhile social commentary.

p. At its roots, “The Riches” is a drama not without exciting derivations from the standard formula. Only as the season progresses will it become clear whether its rich potential will fully flourish. After the most recent developments, it seems to be heading toward the light. For those wishing to catch up on the series, FX is showing a marathon tonight beginning at 9 p.m.

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