Listen: not every show makes it full cycle. Some shows fizzle out: it’s just what happens in the high turnover business of television. One day you’re the critical darling among a crowded slate and the next you’re cancelled after 13 episodes. Low ratings, a faltering viewership, or just rotten luck can doom a series before it even takes off, and many promising shows have died on the vine long before they got a chance to make their bones.
The Riches, which aired on FX from 2007 to 2008, was not one of them. After a strong first season that was lauded by critics and found a dedicated, if small, viewership, The Riches fell apart in a spectacularly disappointing fashion in its second season. Characterizations fell apart, particularly Minnie Driver’s matriarch Dahlia–whose character veered off into unbelievable territory–and the show’s overall direction fell into a rudderless path. It was sad to see such a promising show with a great premise lose its direction.
Especially after such an incredible 13-episode first season: following the con artist Traveller family the Malloys, headed by Eddie Izzard’s Wayne and Minnie Driver’s Dahlia, after the mother serves a two-year stint in jail and with the family runs from their Traveller family after Wayne takes off with a small fortune from the patriarch and breaks from tradition by refusing an arranged marriage for their daughter Di Di (Shannon Woodward), fate finds them a new path after a car accident finds them in the possession of a new life and identity. In particular, the affluent Riches, who die in the crash and with the Malloys struggling to adapt to their lives as normal citizens in an affluent community, complete with private prep schools for their kids and a high-power job for Wayne.
But the thieving Malloys find their adjustment to this new lifestyle difficult, particularly since the middle son Cael (Noel Fisher) still feels strong ties to the Traveller community and their youngest son (Aiden Mitchell) dresses as a woman. Besides this, Wayne finds himself over his con ears as a high-power attorney while Dahlia struggles with a hidden drug addiction. Although they find the American Dream–by stealing it–the Malloys certainly aren’t any richer for the experience.
With a powerhouse first season that sinks its teeth into the inherent drama and humor that comes from such a situation–particularly in the nerve-wracking high-wire act that the family balances as they negotiate their new (stolen) affluence with the (very real) threat of when their Traveller family finds out their situation, The Riches was something completely new on television.
So what happened to this show? How did the excellent 13-episode first season end up cancelled after its 7-episode second season? The answer is simple: the second season was terrible. As in show-cancelling terrible.
But how did such a wide-open concept fail so badly? How could a series that could go in any direction it could choose fail so quickly? After all, this was a seemingly endless series that could find a dozen twists and turns to sustain it and make excellent television–especially after such a solid first season?
The answer is: someone rotted this series from the inside out. It’s cruel to point fingers at this point, especially since a decade’s passed from its demise, but the fault seems to lie squarely on Minnie Driver’s shoulders. Apparently she felt her character was getting the short shrift on the show and she demanded radical re-writes that would bring Dahlia front-and-center into the show’s dramatic force. As a result, Dahlia began acting in some bizarre, nonsensical ways that not only detracted from the show’s initial premise but also derailed the fulcrum point of the show itself–but guaranteed Driver more front-and-center screen time each episode.
Which is unfortunate, since The Riches was an ensemble show. But once one of the key components of the ensemble wandered off into her own disconnected plotline, it necessitated a dramatic rejiggering of the actual plot of the show–which ultimately doomed it.
Because ultimately, The Riches only worked when it was firing on all cylinders: when the entire family as a whole was invested in the insane scheme that they would somehow pull off the great con that they were a rich family living in suburbia with only their Traveller wits to keep them afloat–and each other to keep them together.
Besides this, the first season is filled with a smart mixture of drama, comedy, and overall strangeness as the Malloys-turned-Riches begin to both adopt and struggle against their newfound misbegotten fortune. It’s a strange twist of the American Dream and Izzard in particular as Wayne Malloy/Douglas Rich is captivating. Watch the pilot and see if you don’t get hooked by the premise. In its culmination, when Wayne fully takes on his new role as Doug Rich, walking across the greens like Gatsby, as he openly quotes William Stafford’s poem “A Story That Could Be True” to the captivation of his new country club friend, and is a quote that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since–“…They miss the whisper that runs any day in your mind, “Who are you really, wanderer?”– and the answer you have to give, no matter how dark and cold the world around you is: “Maybe I’m a king,” as Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” begins to play on the soundtrack.
Maybe we’re all kings. Or maybe that’s how we want to see ourselves, or else aspire to see ourselves: masters of our own destiny, seekers of our own fortune. But maybe we’d also be happy to jump into another life, one that jumps us forward automatically to this position without the work or privilege or time that it takes to attain it. More succinctly, maybe we all want to wake up and find ourselves as kings. And maybe if the opportunity presented itself, as it did the Malloys in The Riches, we would be.
The second season’s a sad failing and one that brought the series into a crashing halt. But the first season is a masterpiece. So seek out The Riches–at least the first 13 episodes. It doesn’t offer a satisfying conclusion but it’s a temporary salve. And like the precarious situation the Malloys find themselves, The Riches offers a great temporary thrill that–like its premise–may never have been tenable but is a sweet situation while it lasts.