On the MONEY

The Baltimore Sun

Mom is a heroin addict fresh out of prison chugging codeine cough syrup in hopes of staving off the shakes. Dad is a con man without a hint of a conscience who gives new meaning to the term "identity thief." And then there are the three children, the youngest of whom is a brilliant 12-year-old boy who draws beautifully, dresses in his sister's clothes and is a world-class pickpocket.

Say hello to the new-millennium, all-American family -- prime-time cable television style.

In this case, it's the Malloys, of the new FX series The Riches, which premieres tonight.

Think HBO's The Sopranos. But instead of a Mafia family residing in suburban New Jersey, the Malloys are a family of Gypsy Travellers living in a rusted-out RV and working their cons in the backwaters of Louisiana.

Through a twist in the plot, however, the Malloys (not unlike the Henricksons of HBO's Big Love) quickly find themselves on an upscale cul de sac living the American Dream. Except they couldn't be further outside the mainstream when it comes to their private lives.

Manic Brit comedian Eddie Izzard and versatile film star Minnie Driver play Wayne and Dahlia Malloy with high energy, great charm and plenty of edge, even if their regional American accents leave a lot to be desired. Driver's corny Southern accent is straight out of the Dukes of Hazzard -- that silly, stereotype-laden, 1980s CBS sitcom about "good ole boys," moonshine and their hotrod cars.

But viewers who can get past the uncertain dialects and a few cartoonish supporting characters are in for a real treat. With its off-off-beat take on family values and penetrating exploration of mainstream values, The Riches is the kind of TV drama that makes one think while being entertained.

The pilot begins with what in a Broadway musical would be called an overture -- a perfectly sculpted opener that in the space of a few minutes presages the full production in style, tone and theme.

The camera focuses on Izzard's Wayne Malloy as he arrives at a high school auditorium for a 25-year class reunion. Two of his three children are with him: 16-year-old Dehliah (Shannon Woodward), the most mature member of the family (parents included), and little Sam (Aidan Mitchell), dressed as a girl.

The music, the energy, the bounce in Wayne Malloy's step as they enter the hall is reminiscent of the opening of Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta.

The real fun begins as viewers realize that Wayne was never part of this class. He grabs a name tag off a card table at the entrance to the hall and stops long enough for his daughter to feed him a few facts gleaned from a yearbook. Then he's off and running, conning his way through the room as his two kids pick pockets and rifle through handbags.

The scene climaxes with a dazzlingly brilliant comic, stream-of-consciousness speech made by Wayne to his classmates-who-never-were, followed by a narrow escape for the Malloys.

Afterward it's off to pick up mom, who is being released from prison after serving two years for a scam gone wrong.

The event that allows the Malloys to trade in their itinerant existence for a McMansion in a posh gated community will probably lead some viewers to tune out the show. There's an auto accident in which the Malloys are involved that leaves an older, upscale couple -- H. Douglas and Cherien Rich -- dead. The couple were on their way to take up residence in a new home in a new state.

Instead of reporting the accident and deaths, Wayne and Dahlia decide to go the route of Thomas Ripley in Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley -- disposing of the bodies and assuming their identities.

It is indeed a horrific act, but not nearly as horrible as some of the crimes committed by Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in the name of advancing the fortunes of his family. Such is the state of family values on cable TV that FX is gambling that most viewers quickly will get past any revulsion they might feel toward the newly rich couple.

And so the Malloys' greatest con begins as the family takes up residence in the big house (while loudly debating whether they can get away with what Wayne describes as "stealing a piece of the American Dream").

As much as one might morally disapprove, one can't help but admire Wayne's nerve and Dahlia's uncanny ability for on-the-spot improvisation, two prized talents central to our sense of national identity.

FX made three episodes available to critics, and in coming weeks viewers will see Wayne try to pass himself off as a top-flight corporate attorney in the guise of H. Douglas Rich, while Dahlia maneuvers to get Sam into an elite private school.

The boy's only schooling has been of the home variety -- and most of that dealt with how to be a crook.

But like Tony and Carmela (Edie Falco) Soprano, who understood the importance of getting their daughter into an Ivy League university, Wayne and Dahlia appreciate how sending their children to the right schools can tighten the family's hold on the American Dream.

They're wise already in the ways of status -- and with the blood of upward mobility still wet upon their hands.


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