From Rags to 'Riches'

The shoe beckons from across a department store floor. Alone on its podium, it taunts, calling your name. Men, at least straight men, do not hear shoe voices, but any woman who has ever come home flushed with the excitement of finding the perfect shoes (even if the outfit is not yet in her wardrobe) knows this delicious feeling.

Minnie Driver likens the exquisite sense of finding the right pair of shoes to finding the perfect role. She has done so as Dahlia Malloy in FX's brilliant series "The Riches," premiering Monday, March 12.

"It is one of those things, like trying on a pair of shoes, and when they fit you just right, you really can't live without them; they are yours," Driver says while getting made up for the show. "She is the character I have been waiting for my whole career."

Dahlia is a recently paroled mother of three, a Southerner in love with her husband, Wayne, and a Traveller by trade. She has moved quite a bit and was reared to do so. In this case, the Travellers are American gypsies, who live a very insular life as they wander around stealing and conning people.

The series opens with Wayne (Eddie Izzard) scamming his way into a high-school reunion. While walking into the dance, his kids (Shannon Woodward, Noel Fisher and Aiden Mitchell), leafing through the yearbook, quiz him on the class of '81.

As Wayne glad-hands strangers, pretending to be someone else, he pickpockets their wallets. His kids steal other wallets, and they leave.

They eventually pick up Mom, who is sprung after two years in the joint. Driver, always thin, looks ravaged and fragile in the pilot, precisely how someone would look had she been witnessing heinous acts or shooting up junk. Her hair is in cornrows, which on white women is a hair-don't.

The cornrows were Driver's brave idea. "That's one place where it makes sense," she says. "It doesn't make sense on most people. Unless you are of African-American heritage, it doesn't make sense. People go on holiday, [get the braids], and they look awful. It's stark and revealing and raw. With them half out, she looked mad. It is good to just explore perceptions of what you are capable of. If you are an actress, you have to be brave."

As does her character. Fed up with the hierarchy among the thieves, Wayne decides to leave the Travellers' encampment, but first he cracks the safe and pockets their ill-gotten money. He has no plan other than fleeing.

While driving, the Malloys meet another Traveller family. A fight breaks out in the men's room, leading to a fight on the road, and two ungainly RVs try to push each other off the road. The loser is an oncoming BMW.

The other RV driver high-tails it out of there. Wayne, proving he has a conscience, runs to the accident victims. Dahlia tries CPR on the woman, while Wayne shares the man's last words. Of course, he also takes the man's wallet and a crucial envelope before he picks the car clean.

"The reason behind stripping the car, it was waste," Izzard says. "It would rot or be put into a police compound. They are jackals, and they take from what is left over. Nothing is created."

The envelope Wayne takes contains the keys to the dead couple's new house, a McMansion in a gated community. The couple, Doug and Cherien Rich, were wealthy. Lucky for the Malloys, the Riches bought the house on the Internet; no one has met them.

Wayne likes the spacious house and sliding into another man's life. So what if the clothes are a tad too big or that this ill-schooled man has to pass himself off as a lawyer?

He likes gazing at his three children cavorting in the stone pool and wants to put them someplace they have never been -- in school.

"His big existential crisis is that his entire way of life is parasitic," Izzard says. "That's what he wants to change. He is trying to lie and cheat his way to legitimacy. It is a bit weird because all his skills are outside civilized and settled existence, and this is the weird thing he has to play."

In the first three episodes, everyone plays it brilliantly. Therein lies the attraction to these characters -- they are playing at other people's lives. Creator Dmitry Lipkin, a Russian refugee raised in Louisiana, has long been interested in writing about a family pretending to be what it isn't.

The show weaves layers of this, as the youngest son, Sam (Aidan Mitchell), is a cross-dresser who looks very cute in his Girl Scout uniform.

As the Malloys learn about the Riches, they have to fake more, Lipkin explains. In an upcoming episode, they discover Cherien is Jewish.

Among Driver's excellent scenes are some in which she says nothing yet reveals everything. As she unpacks Cherien's items, you can see her trying to understand, through objects, the woman she is pretending to be. In a later episode, she finds a menorah, a candelabra used at Hanukkah.

"She doesn't do that much research and just wings it," Lipkin says. "We just finished writing this episode, and the first time people enter their house for dinner, she has all this pork. Someone says, 'Aren't you Jewish?' And Wayne says, 'That's just some Jews. I'm from a pig-eating clan, and so is Cherien.'"

Though a drama, the show has many funny lines, and though the main characters are thieves, they have their good sides. One can't help but wonder if by stealing the identities of the Riches, they will come to be them.

"In the end, some of the Traveller things are shoddy and crappy and hitting on very vulnerable people, and he can't abide that stuff," Izzard says of Wayne. "He is working on how he can make legitimate money and get his family to a better place without being too much of a scumbag. There is absolutely a conscience there."