From Eddie Izzard, the British stand-up comedian and sketch artist, we have come to expect funny: some Tim Curry with politics, some Robin Williams with a mean streak, and some bending of genders. Onstage all by himself, he is funny till it hurts. But The Riches isn’t funny, nor does it especially aspire to be. Instead, The Riches reminds us that Izzard has been onstage with other people, too—in David Mamet’s The Cryptogram, for instance, and Peter Nichols’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. There is a menace in his madness, and it shows up here in his Wayne Malloy, a so-called traveler trolling the Louisiana outback along with his cunning family in their butt-ugly RV, looking for “buffers” to sucker. Neither is Minnie Driver, as his drug-addicted wife, Dahlia, playing for laughs. Nor have their kids—sullen 17-year-old Cael (Noel Fisher), smoldering 16-year-old Di Di (Shannon Woodward), and cross-dressing prepubescent Sam (Aidan Mitchell)—ever heard of cute.
Travelers are Irish gypsies, on the road with a fiddle. “Buffers” are ordinary, law-abiding, middle-class stay-at-homes, ripe for plucking. In the first hour of the new FX series, the vagabond Malloys graduate from stealing wallets at a high-school reunion they’ve crashed, to stealing the family bank after their fellow travelers arrange a marriage that would trap Di Di in a “culture of nothing” forever, to stealing the American Dream itself by stealing the identities of a family of suburban buffers who perish in an auto accident for which the Malloys are partially responsible. There is slapstick along the way, of course, but it tends to be surprisingly violent. And in spite of everything you might have heard on The Beverly Hillbillies, upward mobility doesn’t lend itself to hilarity.
“What if I like it?” asks Dahlia, in the second episode, about their new house in a suburb zoned against RVs. After all, in her girlhood she had always wanted to go to a prom. But does this mean that she and Wayne, having sex, will need to “fake it like a buffer”? Cael likes computers, Di Di likes the boy next door, and Sam likes the swimming pool. Wayne finds that his flair for flimflam helps him with such tricky anthropological, religious, and erotic rites as playing golf and practicing law. Yes, vengeful travelers are out there looking for them and some woman keeps calling on the stolen cell phone late at night. And yet, disguised as “Doug,” all Wayne has to do is lie a lot, like everybody else. A nutcracker businessman (Gregg Henry) who hires him, after a game of Russian roulette, articulates this ethic: “You’re a sick mother, Doug—and I like that in a liar.” Meanwhile, Dahlia, who’s trying to follow her bliss but could really use a fix, gets in a scuffle with a busybody neighbor, a molasses-sappy southern belle whose prosthetic arm comes off as if she were a real-life Barbie.
I suppose some of it is funny, as in a Kafka/Beckett/Pinter soft-shoe shuffle of grotesques. Still, what’s so far much more mesmerizing about The Riches is class war and caste hate. I can’t recall another series so bald and raw about these matters since Profit, which lasted about a month on Fox in 1996, before there was a successful FX channel to let unusual television discover its audience. Adrian Pasdar’s malevolent Jim Profit climbed the greasy corporate pole at the same Fortune 500 conglomerate (“A Family Company”) that had manufactured the cardboard box into which an abusive father had dumped him as a naked child. Profit had many motives, but its principal conceit was the representation of upward corporate mobility as symbolic patricide. The Riches ups this ante, suggesting that social hierarchies are themselves mimicry, impersonation, and charade; that nothing is as it appears (not a lawyer nor an arm); that we are surrounded by impostors, subverted by leprechauns, and live in terror that someone will see through the make-believe to who we really are, frauds and fakes.