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No honor for thieves in `Riches'

March 12, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver are the stars of "The Riches," FX's new black comedy -- that's what we would have called it in the '70s -- about a nuclear family of con artists and thieves trying their collective hand at a (relatively) normal life in an upscale community. The actors lend the project a certain indie cred: We trust them to make interesting choices and to follow where they lead. That is not always to a good place, but just to watch them work may be enough for some, and there is probably an argument to be made for taking "The Riches" that way, because it does not bear intense scrutiny.

Izzard and Driver play Wayne and Dahlia Malloy, American gypsy "Travellers" of Irish descent -- they do exist, in the thousands -- who through a series of events more convenient than sensible find themselves living in the house, and literally the shoes, of a dead couple they left in a swamp by the side of a Louisiana highway. (Their clothes fit them too -- lucky thing!)

Three children have they: Cael (Noel Fisher), who smokes cigarettes and scowls and knows a thing or 10 about computers; Dehliah (Shannon Woodward), sensitive, dissatisfied, ready for change; and Sam (Aidan Mitchell), who is artistic and brilliant and likes to wear his big sister's hand-me-downs.

It's a series whose television kin are as abundant as the Malloys' seem to be. It's "The Beverly Hillbillies," a show about people living above their station, but it's also "Green Acres," about a man trying to find meaning in a new way of life. It's "Big Love," the story of an American social underground and its discontents and of a family distancing itself from a larger, rather degenerate communal group. And it's "Weeds," juxtaposing a taste for breaking rules with the gin-and-Valium quiet desperation of the loveless suburban upper class. It's "The Sopranos" (criminals in a McMansion), and it's the short-lived "Runaway" (family on the lam living under an assumed name).

There are more than a few problems here -- some are just the usual not-thinking-this-bit-through-really bloopers of most TV shows. But from the standpoint of creating any real drama or meaning, the worst is that the Malloys have been made better people than everyone around them to keep them likable as they rip off not only the squares -- the "buffers" in Traveller talk -- but their own kind. They are surrounded by grotesques, hypocrites, villains and sad cases.

There is the crooked cop who steals from them their stolen stuff; the snobby headmistress of a private school who refuses the kids admission; the prissy miss next door who has their RV towed (and wears a prosthetic arm); the real estate tycoon who lives in a house modeled on "Hermann Goering's summer place"; the smarmy lawyer whose job Wayne takes. Even the dead man whose name Wayne adopts is seen to be prickly in his final moments. (Later we learn that he might have been cheating on his wife and that he was not liked at his former place of employment.) And their fellow Travellers are portrayed -- such of them as we see close up -- as grasping, dumb or both, while Wayne quotes Socrates ("an unreflected life is not worth living") and William Stafford ("They miss the whisper that runs / any day in your mind / 'Who are you really, wanderer?' ") and reads Sartre.

The show is not without flashes of something substantial. Not surprisingly these moments occur when the family acts as a family, in scenes that they play only with one another, and not in their faintly improbable "Mission: Impossible" tactical mobilizations. It doesn't hurt that the actors playing the kids are all very good -- better, in fact, than the stars at embodying the mix of languor and suspicion that their situation (cultural, regional) suggests.

In these minutes, as when Dahlia talks to Sam about the practical necessity to choose whether to present himself consistently as a girl or a boy, or when the kids fill the empty pool at their new house, or when the family sits down to a real meal at their new dining-room table and baptize it with a grace, we get a real taste of the sweetness we are meant to perceive at their core.

The premise has potential, self-invention being the essence of the national character. But nothing in the three episodes available for review engages this in any substantial way. The show has nothing particularly new, or persuasive, to say about the perils of suburbia, or -- more to the point -- its attractions, the healthy upside of normalcy. (Creator Dmitry Lipkin grew up in Louisiana, where his family moved from Russia when he was 10, so presumably he knows something about being a stranger in a strange land.)

Because the American dream the Malloys set out to "steal" is conceived here in the narrow terms of stuff and money, they only seem to be trading down and their project makes no sense. For now, they're just another wacky TV family in improbable circumstances getting by on their charm.


`The Riches'

Where: FX

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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