By Gillian Flynn
Updated June 01, 2007 04:00 AM
Credit: Prashant Gupta

Fueled by regret and ambition, the Malloy family is seeking a shinier identity. ”I’m going to get us the life we deserve, whether we want it or not,” proclaims patriarch Wayne Malloy (British comedian Eddie Izzard). FX’s The Riches is the most precise of the spate of dramas addressing the American quest for constant improvement and boundless materialism. On HBO, The Sopranos has Carmela’s terrified money-squirreling; Big Love‘s plural family is crushed by credit-card debt. Showtime’s Weeds forces a suburban mom into drug dealing to maintain her upscale lifestyle. They’re all clever thrusts at the costs of consumerism. But The Riches — which wraps its first season on June 4 — is even more excruciating and fascinating: The Malloys are Travellers, Irish-American gypsies working scams in the Deep South. Inherent outsiders, Wayne, his wife, Dahlia (Good Will Hunting‘s Minnie Driver), and their kids have gone way inside, assuming the identities of a deceased family — the Riches — in an exclusive McDevelopment called Edenfalls.

The Riches is only loosely interested in the culture of the Travellers — codes and traditions surface here and there, but it’d be nice to see more. Instead, it’s primarily concerned with the true cost of upward mobility. Wayne, conning his way into a job as a high-stakes lawyer, finds himself jammed into an alien conformity. (One of The Riches‘ many ironies is that the once-rootless Wayne works for a real estate firm — and one that discriminates against outsider types.) Dahlia, newly released from prison, rebounding from meth addiction, is trying to shift into a life that requires more deceit than her old grifter existence ever did. Young son Sam (Aidan Mitchell), a kid who’s most comfortable in dresses and lip gloss, finds himself crammed into suits — clipping on an occasional barrette for comfort. The weight on this family is palpable; just keeping their new lifestyle afloat is overwhelming. ”Is that what’s going to be on my tombstone: Here lies a guy who came up with $19,876.74 a month?” asks Wayne.

The Riches is a crystalline look at our current societal tug-of-war: We’re encouraged to scale back, simplify, live contentedly…but also demand the absolute best for ourselves and our families. The drama is also an acting showcase: Driver is heartbreaking as a woman trying to mend a broken spirit in bewildering surroundings; Izzard gives a tense, spirited performance as a guy too sharp for his old life and too decent for his new one; and Margo Martindale is a gem as a boisterous neighbor with sorrows of her own. In fact, everyone on The Riches has private sadnesses to brave, which ultimately makes the show a wellspring of empathy — for insiders, outsiders, and in-betweeners. B+