Eddie Izzard is, in my opinion, the funniest comic working today. I remember getting his stand-up routine Dressed To Kill on DVD and watching it so many times that I can now recite most of it by heart, in full accent. He's made a name for himself not just as a comedian, but as an actor of some skill, appearing in projects ranging from Todd Haynes' glam love letter Velvet Goldmine to Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven series of pictures. When I heard he had a new show on FX called The Riches, I set my DVR immediately. I didn't even care what it was about. It was a weekly show with Eddie Izzard. That was all I needed to know.
Meet the Malloys. They're a family of "Travellers." In other words, they're con artists. At the head of the group is Wayne (Eddie Izzard), the man who always has a plan. He's been holding the family together since his wife, Dahlia (Minnie Driver) has been in jail. As the series starts, they're going to pick her up when she's released on parole. There's also the three kids, Cael (Noel Fisher), Di Di (Shannon Marie Woodward), and Sam (Aidan Mitchell). They're as witty and inventive with scams as their parents. Dahlia's extended family (hundreds of Travellers) throw a party for her to celebrate her return. But when the group arrives, they discover all is not well. The family patriarch has become terminally ill and his greedy jerk of a son, Dale (Todd Stashwick), has taken over. Dale hates Wayne and is attracted to Dahlia. On top of that, he's promised Di Di's hand in marriage to a member of a distant branch of the family, who happens to be an idiot. In desperation, Wayne steals the money from the family coffers and the Malloys escape in their RV. Getting into a car accident, they discover the bodies of Douglas and Sherine Cherien Rich, a wealthy couple who are moving to a new community. In a spur of the moment decision, Wayne decides the family is going to take over the lives of the Riches, springing the biggest con they've ever pulled.
The Riches treads a fine line between comedy and drama. Obviously, Eddie Izzard is best known as a comedian, and Minnie Driver has done lighter fare as well. But the show hides a dark heart, with many of the situations and events being quite tragic. Izzard is the lynch pin of the project, his character Wayne continually coming up with new plots and schemes on the fly. Izzard walks a tightrope, never wanting to become overwhelmed by the gloom that the other characters often exhibit, while at the same time not becoming a joke. It's a versatile performance that highlights his abilities as an actor outside of his public persona. Minnie Driver is the yin to Izzard's yang, coming across as more vulnerable, yet no less resourceful than Wayne. There's also a tug of war between the two, as Dahlia is more than happy to continue living the Traveller lifestyle, while Wayne wants more.
As great as the leads are, the supporting cast is just as delightful. We get to see a series of character actors whose faces will be more recognizable than their names. Their contributions fill in the details of the world. In a refreshing change of pace, many of the other characters are not stupid, forcing the Malloys to come up with increasingly more complex and sophisticated lies. It's fascinating to watch the pieces come together, as Wayne and Dahlia and the kids become more and more attached to the life of the Riches. They go from just trying to get by to trying to move up, gain respect, become legitimate. Di Di gets a boyfriend at school. Sam excels at his studies, learning French and history with astonishing speed. The more each member of the family gains, the more they have to lose.
Half the fun of the show is seeing Wayne and Dahlia reacting to new situations as they come up. You can practically see the gears turning in their heads as they try to not only cope with the new set of circumstances, but make their lies match everything that's been established to that point. Things only get worse when Dale and other members of Dahlia's family discover where the Malloys have holed up, forcing Wayne to try and satisfy their demands in addition to the people around town. And Wayne's neighbors and co-workers aren't just cardboard cut outs. Wayne works for Hugh (Gregg Henry), a successful businessman who is utterly coarse and has no real friends. Despite this, Wayne connects to him on the level that deep down, they're both hustlers. Dahlia befriends Nina (Margo Martindale), a woman who at first appears to be a generic suburbanite, but has more to her than meets the eye. Wayne and Dahlia genuinely like these people, but still have to lie to their faces every day. And they all have their own problems and issues that they bring with them.
The Riches is an ambitious piece of work for a weekly television series. Granted, FX has been known to take chances with their TV series (Rescue Me and The Shield jump to mind, among others), but The Riches is different in its atmosphere and execution. Rescue Me has combined drama and comedy, but for the most part the comedy comes first. In The Riches, not only does the drama come first, but it's a constant battle for the characters to remain hopeful in the face of all the hardships they endure. The show is relentlessly grim, but the Malloys soldier on anyway, and mainly in good spirits. Plus, it's got Eddie Izzard. How can you not like it?