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New series review: The Riches (FX)

Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver fake the high life in The Riches.

Premiering: Monday (March 12) at 9 p.m. central (10 eastern) on FX
Starring: Eddie Izzard, Minnie Driver, Shannon Woodward, Noel Fisher, Aidan Mitchell, Gregg Henry, Todd Stashwick, Margo Martindale, Bruce French
Produced by: Dmitry Lipkin, Dawn Prestwich, Nicole Yorkin, Michael Rosenberg, Peter O'Fallon

A darkly unique, promising premiere does not a series make. Future episodes must seal the deal, and so far The Riches is poorer for them.

FX's latest very adult drama borrows lightly from The Beverly Hillbillies and Big Love in its tale of a con artist family masquerading as new residents of a sinfully wealthy neighborhood. They've taken on the identities of the late Doug and Cherien Rich. So as with another recent Fox product, The Wedding Bells, we have a double meaning that's a bit more contrived than inspired.

Monday night's first episode otherwise is rich (slap my face) in possibilities, with stars Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver introducing viewers to an almost unearthly world of "Travellers" living off others' gullibility.

We first see Wayne Malloy (Izzard) at a 1981 high school reunion, where he's posing as a flamboyant classmate while two of his three kids lift wallets. Then they're on the road again in a beaten-down RV, heading to prison for a reunion of a different sort. Momma Dahlia Malloy (Driver) is being paroled after a two-year stay in prison, where she's developed a strong liking to the needle and frequent slugs of cough syrup.

Dahlia is a born and bred Traveller accustomed to living in circus-like tent cities. Strict rules of marriage and hierarchy are to be followed, but Wayne began life as a "Buffer" (slang for the rest of the world's inhabitants). Ergo, he just won't allow his nubile daughter Dehliah (Shannon Woodward) to be married to a knuckle-dragging "chromosome retard," as he puts it.

The other fly in this medicine show ointment is surly Dale Malloy (Todd Stashwick), a titular big boss man who thinks he controls the Travellers' purse strings. He and Wayne don't mix very well. After a one-sided fight, Wayne retaliates by stealing the family fortune and hitting the highways again with Dahlia, Dehliah, oldest son Cael (Noel Fisher) and pre-pubescent Sam (Aidan Mitchell), who like Izzard in real life is very fond of women's clothing.

Enroute to wherever, an accident that isn't their fault sends the real Doug and Cherien Rich to the hereafter. They had been heading to their new home, a mansion in the very well-appointed suburban Louisiana community of Edenfalls.

The keys to this kingdom now are readily available to the Malloys, but only Wayne thinks it's a good idea to capitalize. He's soon magically playing golf against a condescending, super-wealthy realtor named Hugh Panetta (Gregg Henry). Meanwhile, back at the manse, a still discombobulated Dahlia is quickly befriended by matron-ish next door neighbor Nina Burns (Margo Martindale).

Yes, some of this seems barely if at all plausible. But we're willing to play along at home because the premise is intriguing, as is Wayne/Doug's declaration, "The American dream. We're gonna steal it."

The next two episodes, also sent for review, are disappointingly flat. The problem isn't with the acting. It's not Izzard's or Driver's fault that the overall believability, let alone the entertainment value of The Riches, takes a belly flop when it should be pole-vaulting over higher bars. FX's ongoing new Dirt series, starring Courteney Cox as a Tinseltown muckraker, got better in its next two episodes. The Riches falters and meanders, losing much of its grip and grit.

Episode 2 spends far too much time on Dahlia/Cherien's efforts to reclaim the family's eyesore RV after a neighbor has it towed. The woman who had it hauled away vows revenge but is completely absent from Episode 3. Maybe she'll return, maybe not. But was this diversion really needed?

At the same time Wayne/Doug is getting himself hooked up with Panetta, who enjoys firing pistol shots at cardboard targets of his many enemies. He otherwise runs Panco Inc., an amoral company dedicated to screwing people. Over gunshots and drinks, Wayne/Doug becomes his new "in-house counsel" at a salary of $200 grand a year.

Episode 3 finds Wayne/Doug addressing the troops and giving a hackneyed speech about a rock that wouldn't have cut the mustard at a Junior Achievement fair. But Panetta, of course, loves it.

In a companion storyline, Dahlia/Cherien and the kids con a school headmistress into accepting her brood into a super-expensive private academy. Again, this isn't exactly riveting stuff. In fact, it's boringly and tritely predictable.

Back at the Travellers' compound, Dale Malloy plots a day of reckoning. Too bad he lacks the menacing, screen-filling presence of a suitably chilling bad guy.

Maybe The Riches can still find its way during an inaugural season scheduled to run for 13 episodes. The show is by no means an embarrassment. Nor is it an embarrassment of riches. A solid and evocative opening episode sets the stage, but the next two hours are only fair, middling and diddling.

It prompts a question that fits the premise: Are viewers the ones being conned? If so, that's not something a TV series can get away with for very long.

Grade: Pilot episode -- B+; second and third episodes -- C