“Stealing the American Dream”

For some reason, I can’t get The Jefferson’s theme song “Moving on Up” out of my head every time I think of the premise to The Riches. FX, home of The Shield and Rescue Me, gives us another slice of edgier television drama, one that explores the heart and mores of our culture. The Malloys, a family of Travellers–Irish-American gypsies grifting their way through life in the South–scam their way into pretending to be a deceased family, the Riches.

The Riches is probably the most on point show exploring America’s value system when it comes to our pursuit of wealth and the costs of consumerism, much like Nip/Tuck explored our ideas of beauty and youth. They become trapped in lives of deceit (ironic for grafters), living in the not-too-subtly named Eden Falls. Wayne (British comedian, Eddie Izzard) goes from outsider/ drifter to the head lawyer for real estate firm who often discriminates against outsiders. Dahlia (Minnie Driver), a recovering drug addict, after a bid in prison, now lives the suburban lifestyle, putting the desperate in Desperate Housewives. Together they are painfully wonderful as the heads of a family striving to get by in the sadness and hypocrisy of their lives.

Doug (Wayne): “Conner, I’m a fraud.” Conner: “It’s Eden Falls, Doug. We’re all frauds one way or another.”

Too often we believe that if we can just get that dream, that castle, that we’ll have the time and the opportunity to make up the costs of what it took to get them. We have faith in the belief that once we attain the dream, everything will work out. So we seek a new, presumably better identities for ourselves, surrounding ourselves with the trappings of success, ever wanting improvement for our lives, accepting the costs of moving on up.

This is where many of us find ourselves: examining our lives trying to figure out what is true and what is false. Like each character in The Riches, we’ve constructed a false self, where we are defined by what we do, by what we have, and by what people think about us. It’s like we are all trapped by these false ideas of ourselves. These false selves, these false ways that we see ourselves, start developing when we’re young: how our families shape us, how we let our friends define us. We derive our self-worth from what we do; we’re of value because of how we behave or what we have.

“I’m going to get us the life we deserve, whether we want it or not.” –Wayne Malloy

We believe this lie and try to fix it ourselves, essentially creating a self-salvation scheme as we try to re-create ourselves. “I am not”–where I should be in life, for example–but “I can be if”I have the right job, the right house, the right kind of money, the right family, go to the right school, and live in the right neighborhood.

And yet some part of us is miserable under this definition of who we are and longs to find a way out from under it, to the point, like Dahlia, we’re forced to lament “I don’t know how to be myself.”

“We’ve got so much. What are we going to do now with all of this good fortune? … We just going to keep it to ourselves? We gonna build a big old wall around us so nobody can get in and threaten what we got? “ –Dahlia

In a lot of ways, The Riches is an indictment of the priorities of our culture:

Consumerism – From the cars we drive, to where we live, to the clothes we wear, we have bought into a lust of life.

Materialism – that quest for more stuff that shrivels people’s souls and empties their lives. We, like any good Americans, are discontent consumers, constantly on the move to satisfy our inner longings.

Entitlement – The bastard son of our lust of life is a perpetuation of a sense of the need for immediate gratification, perhaps even a sense of entitlement, as far too many of us are duped into pursuing these things.

“Don’t you get it? Life is shit, Wayne, and it hurts and it tears at us. And we can’t change it. All you can do is be together.” Dahlia

(Hyper-)Individualism – this “me first” narcissism which fragments community. It is the lie of Wayne’s boss, Hugh (Gregg Henry) who believes “if you’re going to make it in this world, you’ve got to make it alone.”

The Travellers, though a lot of their background remains unexplored, represents a tight, hierarchical community the Malloys strove to escape from (since it had become corrupted by a lone psychopath, Dale Malloy (Todd Stashwick), on his own quest for power). In tossing the baby out with the bathwater fashion, the Malloys ran from the rules and traditions that had kept them going (“The Code: The hand of one is the hand of all.”) to the point where they didn’t know what the rules were and have to make them up as they went along. Eventually, this catches up to them, leaving them so degraded and de-humanized, even Rich is forced to admit – “I don’t even remember what I’m supposed to want.”

There is an interplay between community and the individual: to be truly human, you have to become part of, feel a responsibility to, and serve the community. What happens to the communal gathering affected the individual and what happened to the individual had an impact on the community. Life is not about being controlled by money, things, or greed; but about relationships.

“It’s up to you to decide who you are.” –Dahlia

Our story traditions are rife with loveable rogues, from Robin Hood to pirates. The Riches are cast from that same mold. The show has just enough comedy to balance the hint of sadness to their lives. The air of menace to the show squelches any possible leanings to become preachy. Thing is, it never has to be preachy. It can be content to tell the stories of this family, flaws on display to the world, in its sophisticated
fashion, and be perfectly true to itself. It walks that fine tightrope of balancing the house of cards life the Malloys/Riches have built for themselves. How long they can maintain the charade and not strain credulity is up to the ability of the writers. So until the show is forced to re-invent itself during season two after writing themselves into a corner, The Riches is to be enjoyed.

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