TV on DVD: The Riches - Season 1

"The American dream ... we're going to steal it!"

That's the hook that The Riches (Fox Home Entertainment) hangs its darkly comic and satiric hat on. The Riches premiered on the FX cable network last March, and since then has picked up a decent amount of critical praise. It has earned one of its costars, Minnie Driver, an Emmy Award nomination as best actress in a dramatic series, and a Golden Globe nomination for best performance by an actress in a television series. The nods are well deserved. Driver really is the best thing about The Riches. And that's saying something as she shares the billing with British comic/actor Eddie Izzard, who is impressive from start to finish in this generally strong, likable, contrived but addictive show.

The first season of The Riches is now out on DVD, and it's worth a look for anyone catching up on the better offbeat series cutting paths through the cable TV hinterlands.

The series centers on Wayne and Dahlia Malloy (Izzard and Driver) and their three kids. They're a family of American gypsy "Travelers" -- 21st-century nomadic grifters living outside mainstream society (and a not entirely fictional plot element). Getting by all their lives without credit cards, Social Security numbers or a fixed address, the Malloys have thrived by scamming "buffers" (the Travelers' contemptuous slang for the rest of us), then high-tailing to the next town in their RV before the jig is up. All they know is larceny and the free life that embodies the codes of a scruffily libertarian society existing "off the grid" on their own scroungy terms.

All that changes by the end of the pilot episode, which begins amusingly with Wayne impersonating a stranger at a high school reunion; meanwhile, his 16-year-old daughter Di Di and younger son (a prepubescent transvestite) lift wallets and empty the purses of the reunion partiers who have been so skillfully suckered by the charming man they're convinced is their old school buddy. Before the hour's out Wayne and the kids have picked up Dahlia from the prison where she has spent the past two years -- on a charge that rightfully belonged to Wayne -- and are on the run from their own people back at the Travelers' camp.

Wayne is going through an "existential crisis," so when they're accidentally involved in the death of Doug and Cherien Rich, a Republican lawyer and his wife bound for a new job and life in a wealthy Baton Rouge suburb, Wayne spots an opportunity to escape their past by pulling off the con of all cons. The Malloys assume the identities of the late Mr. and Mrs. Rich. (Dumping the car and bodies in a swamp helps.)

The series follows the family as they try to adjust to their new identity and the lifestyle of upper-crust American suburbia. Tightening the screws from episode to episode, their ultimate con is always in danger of being found out -- the real Riches had friends and relatives -- and on their trail are the other Travelers that Wayne screwed over and who are now looking for rough justice.

Ambitious Wayne's ease with lying, not to mention his native intelligence and intuitive "people skills," is all so good that within days he has infiltrated the world of business meetings and country-club golf. There he meets the hated S.O.B. Hugh Panetta (Gregg Henry), a self-made tycoon with Ted Turner panache and a mean-dog honor code. Hugh sees a fellow conniver in Wayne, and invites the new neighbor to some backyard gunfire at his mansion. "It's modeled on Hermann Göring's summer place," Hugh boasts. "Yes," replies Wayne. "I recognize the patio furniture."

Hugh hires Wayne to be the in-house counsel of his real-estate empire, a position that Wayne is not only utterly unqualified for, he doesn't even know what "in house" means. But Wayne does know how to work his way through a scam, and the season sees him tested to the max in boardrooms and arbitration cases, while simultaneously trying to keep his family together and out of jail.

Other plots serially threaded through these 13 episodes involve the drug addiction Dahlia picked up in prison; the Malloy children -- clever Di Di (Shannon Woodward), cross-dressing little artist Sam (Aidan Mitchell), and sullen, homesick elder brother Cael (Noel Fisher) -- tricking their way into a snobby private school; the arrival of Doug Rich's ex-wife looking for $75,000 in back alimony; Di Di's arranged marriage to a circus-geek simpleton who has tracked them down; the arrival of vengeful sociopath Dale, the roughneck Traveler who feels the most wronged by Wayne and Dahlia's lifestyle choices; and assorted blackmail, thievery, missing persons, neighbor wrangling and identity shifting.

The finale packs some surprises, but the season-long trip getting there is a somewhat repetitive excursion. The premise asks you to swallow a lot to keep it sustained, with too often coincidence and script conveniences holding the show's floorboards together. The premise also takes an easy path to make sure our sympathies stay with the Malloys by portraying everyone else around them as even more morally disreputable and otherwise generally unpleasant. That may be satire, but it's not Oscar Wilde. The tone wanders distractingly. What was sold in previews as a wacky family comedy is in fact a dark and sometimes dour dramedy. The pilot is borderline grim, with the death of the real Riches and how Wayne deals with their bodies being morbid business. The tone lightens up in subsequent episodes, but never expect a lighthearted romp of yuk-yuk hijinks missing only a laugh track.

All the same, the better episodes show off clever writing and always attractive performances especially from Eddie Izzard, Minnie Driver and Gregg Henry. The Riches follows in the tradition of other unconventional, nonconformist TV nuclear families named Clampett, Addams and Soprano. They may not mesh smoothly with modern American ways and means, but when the plot thickens nothing's going to stop them from looking out for one another.

20th Century Fox's DVD set delivers all 13 episodes on four discs. The image is clear and sharp, as is the Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 audio. Extras are the pilot and finale episodes' surprisingly hum-drum commentaries with creator Dmitry Lipkin and Izzard (both of whom are also executive producers). We also get Fox Movie Channel featurettes on the casting session and the world premiere, a gag reel, and seven Webisodes.

Read about more new DVDs.

-------------------

Mark Bourne