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'The Riches'
TELEVISION REVIEW

Stealing the American dream is a family affair

The last thing you might expect from Eddie Izzard, the gonzo standup comic and proud heterosexual transvestite, is a masterful dramatic TV performance. The second-to-last-thing you might expect is to find the flamingly British Izzard so very convincing as a scrappy American making a play for the American dream, with its boxy McMansions and Corian countertops.

But Izzard is a great surprise in FX's "The Riches," and just one of this fascinating new series' unexpectedly soulful pleasures. "The Riches," which premieres tonight at 10, could have been "The Beverly Hillbillies" with an FX license to make Jethro's tangiest fantasies come true. Instead, it's a layered drama about a family of Louisiana grifters that steals the American dream in broad daylight.

Creator Dmitry Lipkin delivers comedy, as pockets are picked and gated suburbia is flimflammed; but "The Riches" is most potent as a bold nightmare about identity and theft in an age of identity theft.

Izzard's Wayne Malloy, his drugged-out wife, Dahlia (Minnie Driver), and their three children are travelers -- a nomadic society of Irish crooks who survive by conning law-abiding Americans (whom they call "buffers"). The 1997 Bill Paxton movie "Traveller" portrayed the same world of old-school thieves who are contemptuous of the America in which they are steeped. Ultimately, of course, the Malloys are sympathetic criminals, in the manner of all cable TV antiheroes. They're trying to flee the traveler life and their clan rather than submit 16-year-old daughter Di Di (Shannon Woodward) to an arranged marriage. But like the Mormons in "Big Love," a similar subcultural TV journey, the travelers do not let defectors off easily.

On the lam, the Malloys are in a car accident that takes the lives of Doug and Cherien Rich , a wealthy couple en route to a new home in a new community. And so the Malloys take over the Riches' lives. Pretending to be Doug, Wayne plays golf with the guys and interviews for a job at an old-boy law firm. Dahlia, just out of jail after two years and dulling her pain with NyQuil , befriends a neighbor who doesn't mind sharing her prescriptions. They pick through the Riches' unpacked boxes for clues to their new identities.

It's preposterous, and yet it's a fantastic premise for both an outsider's anthropological look at suburbia and a cynical take on the lies of American society. The Malloys are frauds, as they fake their way into upward mobility and the trappings of legitimacy. They've stumbled onto the grid like a wily theatrical troupe. But the people they fool -- a snippy neighbor who wants their RV off her land, a macho businessman who uses photos of friends for target practice -- are no less fraudulent in their way. The Malloys are merely the new pretenders in a massive game of social pretend. And it's hard not to root for them.

Wayne loves danger, and he takes to the charade immediately. And that gives Izzard a chance to ham it up a bit, as Wayne bluffs his way into exclusive country-club klatsches. But Dahlia, with her white-trash fancies, is conflicted. And so are the kids -- strong-willed Di Di, cynical 17-year-old Cael (Noel Fisher), and little Sam (Aidan Mitchell) , who likes to wear girls' clothing. They've been wanderers all their lives, and trained to scorn the narrow buffer lifestyle they're now adopting. They long to return to the anarchic atmosphere of the clan, and that forces them to pretend to want to pretend they're the Riches -- yet another melody in the show's symphony of deceit.

The reason the casting of "The Riches" works so well has something to do with the fact that both Izzard and Driver are Brits. They have a decent-enough handle on their American accents, but they nonetheless bring a vaguely alien quality to their characters. And that works thematically. They are actors feigning a nationality, just as the Malloys are counterfeiting the Riches. The only truly genuine thing about "The Riches," it seems, may be its promise.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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