For This Family of Pros, the Con Is Everything
So much research is devoted to studying whether violence on television desensitizes children. Yet nobody seems to worry that adults are becoming inured to excellence.
“The Riches,” a new series that begins tonight on FX, could serve as the control in a much-needed experiment. It’s so compelling it deserves to be a hit, generating as much media attention and Internet chatter as “Deadwood,” “Nip/Tuck” or “24.” (It would be blasphemy to invoke “The Sopranos,” since no show is that good, not even “The Sopranos.”)
So if “The Riches” does poorly, then it can only mean that there is too much high-quality television driving away the bad.
Some of the danger signs include the ho-hum, seen-it-before syndrome. A synopsis of “The Riches” — a family of Southern grifters con their way into a wealthy gated community — sounds vaguely familiar. Some might shrug it off as a cross between “Weeds,” the Showtime series about a pot-dealing soccer mom and an R-rated “Beverly Hillbillies.” It’s not the first cable drama centered on an endearing career criminal and his family.
But “The Riches” has a voice and peculiar style all its own, the comedy always offset by a lurking sense of sadness and menace. The Malloys are Travelers, Gypsy-like nomads who in the United States, most often in the South, live in tight, hierarchical communities. Many survive on thievery and petty scams. After a dispute with the would-be head of their clan, the Malloys steal the community bank and run away.
More through bad luck than serendipity, they assume the identity of a dead couple, Doug and Cherien Rich, and masquerade as a lawyer and a homemaker with three children in private school.
The father, Wayne Malloy, is played by Eddie Izzard, a beloved stand-up comedian and sketch artist in Britain. Minnie Driver plays his wife, Dahlia, a princess of the blood in the realm of the Travelers but in the outside world a woman who has just emerged from a two-year stint in jail with an addiction to cough syrup.
Together, they are superb in “The Riches,” a couple alternately loving and alienated, winning and disturbing, artful and doomed.
Trading in their battered RV and Louisiana swamplands for a sumptuous pink mansionette with swimming pool, the Malloys pull off their ruse with skill and also childish naïveté. The children do not go to school but are well educated in the arts of forgery, car theft and flimflam. “Buffer” is the Travelers’ term for civilians, and the Malloys are at first bewildered by and slightly contemptuous of buffer luxuries like the garbage disposal and flat-screen TV.
Slowly the lure of affluence and ease pulls them in. “This American dream, they don’t just give it to you with a big old ribbon and a bow,” Dahlia scolds her husband. “If we want it, we have take it, do whatever it takes to hold on to it till they rip it out of our cold dead hands.”
Wayne, who never went beyond the seventh grade, talks his way into a highly-paid job as a corporate lawyer. When her children are summarily rejected by a snooty private school, Dahlia pulls off an elaborate con on the head mistress and succeeds in enrolling them.
Tipsy with their new life, the Malloys come to believe in their own finesse and good fortune, unaware that Dale Malloy (Todd Stashwick), a cousin and the brutal leader of the Travelers, is determined to hunt them down.
Cael, 17 (Noel Fisher), who left a girlfriend back at the camp, is the wariest in the group, worried that his silver-tongued father and erratic, strong-willed mother have no idea what they are in for and no strategy to get out. Dehliah, 16 (Shannon Woodward), is more trusting, but she is quickly charmed by the boy next door. The youngest, Sam (Aidan Mitchell), is brainy, artistic and prefers to dress as a girl, a choice his family accepts but that he must conceal to the outside world.
Wayne finds a way into the world of business meetings and country-club golf through Hugh Panetta (Gregg Henry), a self-made tycoon with Ted Turner panache and an Enronian honor code. He invites Wayne to his mansion, boasting, “Its modeled on Hermann Göring’s summer place.” His hobby is to sit on his patio and fire a gun at targets covered with the faces of people who get on his nerves, from Rush Limbaugh to Alan Dershowitz.
When Hugh offers Wayne a job as a lawyer in his real-estate empire, Wayne isn’t sure what “in house,” means and repeats the words thoughtfully until Hugh supplies the rest, “in-house counsel.” But Wayne cements the deal with a con man’s bluff, taming the bullying Hugh with a game of Russian roulette.
“A good lawyer makes you believe the truth,” Wayne says after aiming a gun at his future employer’s head. “But Hugh, you know what a great lawyer does? He makes you believe the lie.”
Hugh gives him the job, telling Doug that he’s a sick fellow, “and I like that in a liar.”
Viewers will also learn to like these liars.
“The Riches” is that rare thing, a dark, sophisticated series that speaks to our most childlike natures. Just as little boys and girls dress up as the Little Mermaid or pretend they are enrolled at Hogwarts, the Malloys tempt even stand-up adults to assume a new identity and live it to the fullest — on someone else’s MasterCard.
FX, tonight at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.
Created by Dmitry Lipkin, who wrote the pilot episode; executive producers, Eddie Izzard, Dawn Prestwich, Nicole Yorkin and Mr. Lipkin, and Michael Rosenberg, Mark Morgan and Guy Oseary of Maverick Television; Peter O’Fallon, producer and director of Episode 1; Carl Franklin, director of Episode 1. Produced by FX Productions and Fox Television Studios.
WITH: Eddie Izzard (Wayne Malloy), Minnie Driver (Dahlia Malloy), Shannon Woodard (Dehliah Malloy), Noel Fisher (Cael Malloy), Aidan Mitchell (Sam Malloy), Todd Stashwick (Dale), Bruce French (Jim Burns), Margo Martindale (Nina Burns) and Gregg Henry (Hugh Panetta).