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Among the Squares

March of the grifters: The Malloys reach for an earthly paradise in The Riches.

Between the crime revenue that allows a mobster to be a well-heeled suburbanite in The Sopranos, the pot business that keeps a bourgeois widow afloat in Showtime’s Weeds, and the hidden-in-plain-sight polygamy that if exposed could take down a successful hardware-store owner in HBO’s Big Love, you might wonder if there was even room for another drama about the hidden secrets that sometimes underpin the American Dream.

FX believes there is, and they’re happily right. The network’s new one-hour drama, The Riches, is about Louisiana con artists in the tradition of the old Irish Travelers clan, who undertake the biggest ruse of their lives — impersonating the well-to-do in a ritzy neighborhood. This is a meaty show about the complex allure of easy wealth and the traps it sets for one’s personal morality. Based on the three episodes made available for review, if the quality keeps up — the solid acting, edgy humor and character-driven suspense — The Riches may become the most relevant show of our day. With the country already polarized by class division thanks to a misguided concern for enabling the moneyed and a tired neglect for the poor and middle class, the notion of a show that directly addresses the point where quality of life and thirst for success intersect is a welcome one. It’s like a fraud’s variant on the classically American backstage-drama trope of “Let’s put on a show,” which in the age of never-ending campaigning, corporate malfeasance and the march to war in Iraq should be a disturbingly familiar topic for all.

Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver — Brit actors sporting American accents, as if to compound the series’ theme of pretend — play Wayne and Dahlia Malloy, RV-living nomads with a daughter and two sons well-schooled in the art of diversion and thievery. (In the first episode we’re introduced to the kids’ pickpocketing wiles at a high school reunion Wayne crashes.) When the demands of Dahlia’s extended clan begin to chafe at their cherished independence — namely an arranged marriage that would pair crafty 16-year-old Dehliah (Shannon Woodward) with a brainless hick — Wayne grabs a chance to sever ties by doing the unforgivable: stealing from their relatives’ reserves and taking off.

When a fateful encounter presents the Malloys with the chance to take the place of two affluent but dead buffers, which is Traveler lingo for what old-time gangster movies called “squares,” Wayne decides that maybe the greatest flimflam of all might just be convincing society and themselves that they belong in the world of golf courses, private schools, gated communities and — since his adopted persona, Douglas Rich, is that of a lawyer — a steady stream of income.

Of course, the first problem is that dreamer Wayne decides this without the agreement of hard-bitten realist Dahlia. And Dahlia, as fiercely played with a combustible backcountry mix of wifely rage and motherly sweetness by Driver, is not so comfortable being told what she has to do. After all, she’s just emerged from a two-year jail stint that we’re led to believe was the result of her taking the fall for Wayne. But she ultimately joins in, especially when she realizes that her addictive personality doesn’t have to feel low-rent — not when her friendly new neighbor (Margo Martindale) has doctor-approved happy pills at the ready.

What’s refreshing about The Riches, created by a playwright named Dmitry Lipkin, is that this isn’t the type of show that wants us to cavort on a bed of ill-gotten cash with the Malloys/Riches. We’re on their side, for sure, but the vibe is that of a manicured minefield. There’s a palpable unease on display — an anti-slickness — because the family is forced to close ranks to make their particularly crazy scheme work, especially if they want to avoid getting caught by either their instant friends and associates, or the old ones they burned and abandoned (and who desperately want revenge). The family’s predicament is a sturdy dramatic metaphor for the one-paycheck-away-from-poverty world too many of us have to live in. So as they enter a universe of credit cards, luxury cars, proper socializing and traditional sex roles, every shiny, gilded new element of their suddenly respectable lives — whether it’s Wayne playing legal counsel for a gun-crazed, shady real estate mogul (Gregg Henry), or Dahlia baking cookies for the neighbor, or the kids having to play nice to stay in school — is something potentially fraught with danger. It’s a pungent joke: The happy grifters keep wondering, will joining society corrupt them? Or will the family that stings together, cling together?

Despite the dire-sounding title, HBO’s original movie Life Support doesn’t revolve around a deathbed in a hospital, but it does deal with the emotional ramifications of HIV, which may never shake its stigma as a death sentence. Certainly, it’s as big a problem as ever in the African-American community, with black females far outnumbering white women with the disease. First-time director Nelson George’s sincere, modest movie isn’t an affliction-of-the-week weepie, although by the end it has more than earned a measure of poignancy. The focus is on the emotional trials of HIV-positive Brooklyn wife and mother Ana, played by Queen Latifah, whose drive to help others — she counsels at an AIDS outreach program and patrols the streets with a wheelie cart dispensing condoms and brochures — sometimes backfires when applied to correcting mistakes in her own life. Things are still unresolved with her wisecracking-yet-protective husband, Slick (Wendell Pierce, from The Wire), who gave her the virus in their drug-taking youth, and with her mother, Lucille (Anna Deavere Smith), who took in Ana’s now-teenage daughter Kelly (Rachel Nicks) and raised her when Ana couldn’t. On the periphery of the story — but crystallizing the film’s emphasis on the difficulty of how to help — is Kelly’s childhood friend Omari (Evan Ross), a troubled, gay HIV-positive teen who is only a step away from living on the streets. It’s a testament to George’s confident handling of the material (which he co-wrote with Jim McKay and Hannah Weyer) that while it touches on many elements of the national crisis — mostly through the scenes of Ana in her support group and discussing counseling issues with her co-workers — the project avoids feeling like a bulletin-board movie. It has a dramatic sincerity about the regenerative power of family, a lived-in vibe that steers clear of melodrama in favor of real-life moments and exchanges. And when you cast actors who can convey so much through the smallest of gestures or looks — Latifah with her natural conviction, Pierce with his versatile baritone, Smith with those commanding eyes — a movie called Life Support has all that its title implies.

THE RICHES | FX | Mondays, 10 p.m. Premieres March 12.

LIFE SUPPORT | HBO | Saturday, March 10, 8 p.m.


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