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`Riches' plays for comic FX

The network known for its edgy dramas dips into comedy, but it's hardly standard fare.

March 10, 2007|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

The network that brought you murderous cops, sex-crazed plastic surgeons and a pill-popping fireman who all but raped his estranged wife is now in a family way.

FX, which made its groundbreaking mark on the television landscape with such dynamic, raw fare as "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck" and "Rescue Me," is entering into milder territory on Monday with "The Riches," a series centered around a married couple and their three children residing behind the gates of a cushy, comfortable community.

Though it sounds like a suburban idyll, "The Riches" is a world away from "Father Knows Best." What with its layers of complexities and nuances, it is something of a ragout for TV.

Take the spiciness of "The Sopranos," "Big Love," "Weeds," "The Fugitive" and "Ugly Betty," add some original European seasonings and fresh homegrown sauciness, sprinkle with satire and it might come close to defining "The Riches."

The series, which at its heart is a thematic search for the American dream, was created by a Russian refugee who moved to Louisiana as a youngster, and features two versatile British leads -- one who made a splash as a cross-dressing heterosexual comedian -- who are new to weekly American TV. Helping to run the show is a producing-writing team who used to be known as "the soccer moms."

It's that hybrid of disparate creative forces that provides "The Riches" with its unique chemistry, said Eddie Izzard, one of the show's stars and an executive producer: "It's challenging but also a great learning ground."

Izzard teams with Minnie Driver ("The Phantom of the Opera," "Good Will Hunting") to play Wayne and Dahlia Malloy, two hustlers who are part of a tribe of outlaw Gypsy Travellers in rural Louisiana. When they run afoul of the larger clan, the Malloys flee. A series of bizarre, and deadly, circumstances provide the fugitive Malloys with the literal and figurative keys to safety -- the house of a deceased affluent couple. In Wayne's world view, assuming the identity of the Riches is an opportunity to make a better, more honest life for his family.

Or, as Izzard put it, "Wayne has to lie and cheat his way into legitimacy."

Series creator Dmitry Lipkin said he wanted to build a show around a family that was pretending to be something it wasn't, "a family that has a private and a public identity." "The Riches" takes a poke at the establishment, the wealthy and suburban life even as it probes the volatile dynamics of the Malloys (smooth-talking Wayne isn't as smooth in his desperate struggle to keep the family together; Dahlia is a drug addict, the youngest son likes to wear dresses).

Despite the grueling seven-day-per-episode shooting schedule in the Santa Clarita Valley and the 17-hour days, Izzard -- who has performed in movies, plays and an acclaimed one-man show in which he wore women's clothing -- and Driver, who has lately pursued a singing career, both declare "The Riches" one of their most satisfying experiences.

Said Driver: "This is the hardest work I've ever done. But this is also the best character I've ever played."

The two performers, who knew of each other but had never met before they came together on this project, use American accents in their roles. "There's a fantastic irony in us doing this series," Driver said. "Everyone wants the American dream. But that has really gone off the rails in the last few years."

The launching of "The Riches" comes at a crucial time for FX, which would welcome a hit to join its reliable veteran roster. Several series in the last few years, including "Thief," "Black / White," "Over There" and "Starved," have failed. And while FX executives say the jury is still out on the tabloid journalism show "Dirt," that series so far has not caught fire with critics or viewers.

Special care is being taken with the shaping of "The Riches," a pet project of FX Networks President John Landgraf that has been in development for two years. The original pilot, directed by Carl Franklin ("Devil in a Blue Dress"), was shot a year ago. But producers felt the tone of the pilot was too dark and called on director Peter O'Fallon to re-shoot some scenes and to add more humor.

Writer-producers Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin were brought in to further finesse the tone. The partners, who have young children, worked on several other series and created the short-lived "The Education of Max Bickford."

"The concept of the series is that these folks are taking over dead peoples' lives," Prestwich said. "But Eddie and Minnie are very funny. It's a constant balancing act."

Added Yorkin: "The show is about wish fulfillment, but this kind of wish fulfillment can have a very dark side."

Still, Izzard is so confident that "The Riches" will strike pay dirt with viewers that he's already thinking up story lines for the sixth season. "I love doing this," he said. "I insist that it work."

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