Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Stealing the American Dream

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Hi all

I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve become a Netflix junky. Yes, I admit it. I’m sure there’s a 12 step program out there somewhere that I should join, but until then I’m just enjoying the ride.

I’ve become obsessed with a TV show that aired in 2007 called “The Riches.” It’s subversive and dark and I’m amazed that it ever got made. It did get canceled before they could tie it all up, so if you decide to watch it based on my recommendation; know ahead of time there is no real ending. The show was killed midstream, so if you like your plots neat and complete you’ll be disappointed. Though it is unfinished, it is still a brilliant work. The fact that it ends without finalizing everything is really ok, because the ride is worth it; even if you don’t get to see where it was going.

The other caveat is that it is done within the framework of a television drama. So there are elements that go over the top and stretch your belief, but these are minor quibbles and don’t really detract from the underlying message.

Let me tell you about the show. I’ll use broad brush strokes and try not to give away too much. I hate reviews that tell you EVERYTHING that happens, I’ll let you enjoy discovering the details. So with all that out of the way…

“The Riches” follows the lives of a family of American “gypsies”, called Travelers. Travelers are con artists who lie, cheat and bullshit their way through life. They con and steal from everyday citizens, who they refer to as “buffers.” This family of Travelers are Wayne and Dahlia Malloy and their three children. Through a misadventure, they assume the lives of a wealthy family: Doug and Cherien Rich. They “steal” the American Dream. This sets up the premise of the show, which documents the lengths the family goes to hold on to what they’ve gotten. How far will they go, and how will this lifestyle change them are questions that get answered in each subsequent episode.

In the pilot, the oldest boy is afraid to sleep in their new house because he is worried it will “steal their souls.” As the show progresses it seems that this new lifestyle HAS stolen their souls. But of course what has really happened is that they have given up their souls to be what they are not. Wayne says, speaking of himself, “The difference between who he was and who he wanted to be was maybe more than he could bear.” What a terrible dilemma. This longing to be more is the heart of the American Dream, but not everyone can realize their dreams.

At its best, the American Dream pushes us to achieve and strive. We humans seem wired with the need to grow. I think it’s in our evolutionary DNA, and it’s how our species has thrived. But the flip-side of success is failure. Not everyone has the opportunity or the talent to get what they want, not everyone succeeds. The darkness of the American Dream is redefining failure as a fatal flaw inside the person. This side of the American Dream re-contextualizes lack of success as personal defect and renders those who fall short as lesser humans.

Dahlia, Wayne’s wife, is introduced to us as she is leaving prison to rejoin their family after a 2 year absence. Over the first few episodes we discover that she blames Wayne for her incarceration because he was “addicted to the rush.” She implies that it’s the thrill of deceiving people, and taking it farther and farther that drives Wayne and he admits this is true. We also learn that Dahlia has developed a drug addiction while in jail. It first this seems to be a major plot point, but I think this is a little misdirection on the part of the storytellers: Dahlia has the obvious addiction problem, but it’s Wayne’s compulsions that drive the story.

“Connor, I’m a fraud.” At a low point, a point where he’s feeling he just can’t keep up with the hoax he is perpetuating on those around him, Wayne speaks these words to an acquaintance not in on the scam. His eyes widen when he realizes that he has spoken from the heart, and you can feel the tension that comes from this admission. You can also see the longing in Wayne to stop the deception. There are moments when every one of us feels like a fraud. Maybe we failed to live up to an expectation from someone we love; maybe we failed to live up to our own expectations of ourselves. In those moments we too wonder if we aren’t fooling everyone, perhaps even ourselves, about our own self-worth. At that moment Wayne tries to put an end to the deceit.

But Connor misinterprets him. Like a scene from “Being There,” the classic Peter Sellers film, Connor thinks Wayne is speaking metaphorically and so he commiserates and tells Wayne, “We’re ALL frauds,” and the moment passes.

Then Wayne gets the ultimate rush. He does succeed. He fools everyone into thinking he is something he is not, and just like a gambling addiction is fed when the jackpot is hit, Wayne’s ego gets fed and now he just wants more.

Through the first season, the family lies to the world, but not (so much) to each other. The foreshadowing of Wayne’s “addiction to the rush,” begins to develop into a major issue for the family at the start of the second season. Wayne deceives his family, because he doesn’t want to give up being Doug Rich. He has wrapped his identity and self-worth into the charade. The consequences of his deception are severe. Wayne begins to lose all sense of what’s important to him and his family in his desire to keep this new persona.

“Everyone wants more.” It’s a tag line that you will hear repeated in the show. It’s also a fitting coda to the show. Everyone wants more; the question is how far are they willing to go to get it?

It’s the magic of “The Riches” for me. Any work of art should make us think about themes and archetypes of our shared humanity. It doesn’t have to be great art, it can be flawed and incomplete, but if it gives you pause, and makes you think then it fulfills the description of art.

One last thing, please don’t get the impression that this program is unrelentingly dark and depressing. Just as a painter relieves the darkness with light, The Riches leavens the drama with doses of humor and love. The scenes between Wayne and Dahlia, played by Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver are a case study in humanity. Their love for each other comes through even as they fail each other.

Watch the pilot, even if you decide not to watch any further, it’s well worth your time.


  1. Some questions you may consider in light of your self-described obsession. Is your life subversive and dark? Have you given up your soul to be what you are not? Do you feel you cannot realize your dreams? Do you feel flawed or a failure, because you have not achieved the American Dream (whatever the hell that is)? Do you feel you have a personal defect which renders you a lesser human? Do you feel like a fraud? When your ego gets fed do you want more? Do you want more than you have? And if you do, of what? How far are you willing to go to get it? Does your love come through even as you may perceive you have failed?

  2. I was discussing my obsession with Ashley and this is where I thought it was coming from:

    The character of Wayne just pulls at me. I identify with him on a couple of major levels. One, as a self-educated person I think I tend to always feel like I'm not really qualified for whatever it is that I'm doing. But perhaps I'm putting too much emphasis on the self-educated part--maybe it's just the human condition to always be full of doubts.

    The other big identifier for me is that Wayne sees himself, and his family see him as "the fixer," the person who can always come up with the answers. One big Dunseth trait is our feeling that we can "make things right." And of course we can't always do this, but we think we're supposed to...and it causes us to take on more and more and then crash. Wayne is always doing this and it presents a great mirror for me to see the destructiveness of this way of life. Not to say that trying to fix things is always bad, but like many things that can be good in moderation, it's not so good when taken to the extreme.

    I think approaching 50 you begin to see more clearly that there are many dreams you will never realize and coming to an acceptance of this can be challenging.