That’s the password for Doug Rich’s computer. Typing in those words unlocks a brave new world for Wayne Malloy and his ragtag family band of travelers, i.e., small time con artists. They’re part of a loose group of gypsies that came over from Ireland 150 years ago and today cruises around the American South, living off the grid, wreaking havoc like pirates.
What Wayne, his wife Dahlia, and their three kids discover is that the suburbs are full of people like them; small time crooks, scavengers, everybody hustling to get ahead, ready to see everyone around them as a mark. Actually, the only difference between the tribal con artists and the lawyers, developers, and business people populating gated communities full of McMansions, is that the suburbanites do it on a grander scale. Filthier. Richer.
What the DVD of The Riches: Season 1 captures is revelatory performances by a smart ensemble cast and a snappy satire of suburbia. We’ve seen America’s bourgeois consumer lifestyle sent up before, but not quite in this way.
After a tragic car crash, precipitated by Wayne and his family trying to get away with yet another small-time heist, milquetoast lawyer Doug Rich and his wife Cherien find fate dealing them a losing hand. Their Mercedes was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it flies off the road as the Malloys, in their grungy RV, tangle with another RV traveling family that is trying to get in on a piece of their action. It’s a tribal squabble, played out on the blacktop with an RV chase and bang-up. But Doug Rich is the one who ends up with metal stuck in his chest when he swerves to avoid the incongruous RVs, he flips his car. The lawyer couple dies.
Always on the verge of desperation, surviving only through their wits and ingenuity, the Malloys show their humanity by stopping to try to save the couple. But when they can’t, they do what they feel they have to. They take on their identities. They learn the Riches had been en route from Tampa, had bought a house via the Internet in Edenfalls, a rich community in Louisiana, and were on their way to chase more of their American Dream, leaving few friends, family, or even connections behind them. They serve as a perfect portrait of disconnected, isolated, wealthy consumers.
Arriving at the Riches new home, Wayne convinces his family that they should do something amazing: steal the American Dream. All agree, because they are weary of the traveler lifestyle, which involves trips to prison (wife Dahlia has just emerged from a two-year stint), petty squabbles, a squalid life at a communal camp, one scam after another, and the veneer of communal living leavened by the reality of bald-faced greed.
What the traveler life gives the family is a sense of cultural identity, of traditions imported from Ireland and cured in the smokehouse of the American South, a sense of belonging, even if the tribe is vicious. They are outsiders to mainstream US society, and they are critical and dubious of the normal people, dubbed “buffers”. But Wayne dreams of being somebody, being something more than a small-time huckster. He wants something better for his kids, who are all jaded, trained thieves who nevertheless have love in their hearts and a fierce family loyalty.
The fish out of water story that ensues as the Malloys play at the role of straight society allows many opportunities for social critique. Outsiders enchanted by the suburban “normal life”, the Malloys quickly discover that they are already familiar with many aspects of this world. From Wayne’s new boss (after he talks his way in as Doug the lawyer), a wealthy entrepreneur who demolishes his opponents, has no friends, and engages with the world around him like a raging bull, to Dahlia’s next-door neighbor, a bored housewife whose hubby is gay and who is struggling to get what she wants out of life.
Indeed, the people in this suburbia are grasping, desperate, hustlers who are trying to get what they can from the world. Just like travelers, only the tools of their trade are corporate mergers and prep schools.
As the Malloys manage to keep the charade going for as long as possible, they struggle with their new world, with the idea of leaving their past and culture behind, or with how to take some of it with them. They also struggle with lying so much they can’t remember the truth, and losing a sense of self and purpose.
The kids, especially 15-year-old Di Di, start to have some hope, start to love their new life of prep school, perks, and new friends. If they had stayed in their old life, Di Di would have been married off (as Dahlia was at the same age). Now, she’s got a new world of opportunities in front of her, and she starts to shape shift into it, becoming ashamed of her mother’s lack of schooling and her family’s former life.
When a traveler boy shows up to try to force her into marriage (with the threat of blowing their cover), Di Di can’t imagine what it would cost her to go back. Luckily, the family wriggles free, as they always seem to do.
But we learn that there are consequences to the web of lies the Riches have woven. As the episodes progress, Dahlia, tired of lying starts to lose her sense of self and has a moral crisis. Her neighbor friend guesses the lie and feels betrayed, yet still wants to help. Dahlia tells her their friendship was never a lie. As people start to depend on the family, the Riches feel bonds of friendship and responsibility – the authenticity of human connection begins to peek through the smoke and mirrors.
This glint of hope balances the show’s darker tone, which is about how humans seem governed by their most base survival impulses. Anyone is capable of screwing over anyone else at any given moment, and they usually do. That message can be a bit overwhelming across the arc of the episodes. So the dedication to family and some hope of friendship and community is important.
In “Anything Hugh Can Do, I Can Do Better”, Wayne tries to convince Dahlia to stop doing drugs by going off on a crystal meth bender himself. While tweaking, he sits at the office talking to a team of lawyers, rambling incoherently. But when he talks about how he doesn’t know how he got this life, how it feels exhausting to keep working just to support the lifestyle, just to pay the monthly bills, how he wonders if this is really what he wanted out of life, the lawyers, gazing through the veil of corporate culture, connect with him and agree wholeheartedly.
Izzard, who does a lot of improv in the performance, as we learn on the audio commentary tracks, drug trips convincingly, but he can effortlessly pull off the same humor-scam balance at any moment in the series. We also learn, in several featurettes included among the lively DVD extras, that creator Dmitry Lipkin already had one of the kid characters (adolescent son Sam) drawn up as a straight, cross-dressing boy even before Izzard (the celeb poster child for that identity position) signed on to the show.
Izzard is clearly delighted by the supportive, non-judgmental tone of the show. Everyone’s just trying to get by. Together. Izzard and Driver as his wife have a wonderful rapport that can shift from comic to intensely dramatic on the drop of a dime, and the young actors playing their kids are equal parts tough (chain-smoking son Cael waiting for the jig to be up) and dreaming (sweet Sam drawing murals on his wall of all they’ve been through and his hopes for the future).
As the house of cards is always in danger of collapsing, the episodes offer festive storylines that feature the family’s creative ways of getting out of scrapes (Wayne knows nothing about the law, so he guests at a college law class to get the students to do “case studies”, i.e., explain everything he needs to know to him). The dramatic tension is high (will a sociopathic Traveler leader who tracks them down spell their doom?). And we don’t really know if the family wants to get caught or not. Neither do they.
Our answer for this first season is open-ended, as the final episode is a cliff-hanger. Doug’s one friend, Pete, has doggedly tracked him down, realizes the scam, and threatens to call the authorities. With a mix of absurdity (Wayne spends the episode with red Kool Aid all over the crotch of his pants, the victim of the boss’s son’s water pistol) and dark desperation (are the Riches going to kill Pete so that they can keep up their suburban lifestyle charade?). The episode epitomizes the fizzy, gothic atmosphere of the serial, and the outsider-insider critique that gives the show bite.