The new series follows the Richards family after the death of their patriarch Stephen Richards, played by Hugh Quarshie. When the self-made business mogul leaves his cosmetic empire to his children from his first marriage in his will, he sets the stage for his two families to collide, kicking off a no-holds-barred struggle for control of a business empire. Alongside Quarshie, the series stars Deborah Ayorinde, Hugh Quarshie, Sarah Niles, Emmanuel Imani, Brendan Coyle, Ola Orebiyi, Adeyinka Akinrinade, Nneka Okoye, C.J. Beckford, and Hermione Norris.
Riches opens with Quarshie’s Stephen, in an interview, recounting his success catering to Black beauty, an oft-ignored demographic in the beauty industry. In this scene, Quarshie – a Ghanaian-born British actor playing a Nigerian character – effectively demonstrates the notable air of unrelenting charm and a dash of arrogance West African men are known for. Despite revealing in his last will and testament that he made efforts to be a good husband and father, viewers are only ever shown evidence to the contrary as he is revealed to be a secretive man, one who instilled competition among his children, and a philanderer. His death in the pilot, along with many of his secrets, sets the story in motion. The family drama thrives where many shows falter, and that is in having a compelling pilot that not only sets up its story but establishes characters you can root for and hate in equal measure.
Riches also uses its opening scene to set up conversations of bias and racism, a theme that will ricochet through the season in subtle ways. The moments of racism in Riches are understated and never overt because racism rarely is — well, unless encountered on social media. Microaggressions and dog whistling are the racist games played in the real world, as the series reminds us. Elsewhere, across the pond, Stephen’s estranged daughter, Nina (Ayorinde), is also being celebrated for making the largest merchandising deal in her company’s history. Despite the accolades, the audience is immediately clued into the fact Nina is unsatisfied with her life. As such, when the opportunity comes for Nina to stay in the United Kingdom and run the cosmetics empire Stephen left to her and her brother, Simon (Imani), in his will, it comes as no surprise she chooses that over her life in the States.
Ayorinde gives a stellar performance, leading the ensemble cast; she commands every scene she’s in with a quiet presence and compelling delivery. She’s crafted a character that shines in quiet moments, delivering a nuanced performance to match the very complicated situation Nina finds herself in – having to carry on the legacy of a man who abandoned her when she was a child. Ayorinde succeeds in showcasing Nina’s emotional turmoil with a steady defiance that is captivating to watch. When Nina introduces herself to the employees as the new boss of Flair and Glory and is interrupted by her half-brother, Orebiyi’s Gus Richards, who believed he would be CEO after his father’s death, she is able to immediately regain control of the meeting and show she will not be pushed around, a characterization that never sways all season long.
The second episode sees Nina adjusting to her role as CEO of Flair and Glory. The company’s books are a mess, the Head of Products is incompetent and soon enough, she tackles her first crisis as CEO. However, she finds an ally in an unlikely place – her half-sister Alesha (Akinrinade), Stephen’s daughter from his second marriage to Claudia, who is often overlooked and counted out by her family. Alesha finds much-needed validation with Nina and Simon, and proves to be a reliable ally and an unexpected delight in early episodes; however, Akinrinade eventually passes that baton to her sister, Okoye’s Wanda, when she begins to make predictable choices that do not match up with the characterization viewers are introduced to.
Interestingly, while one of Riches’ biggest strengths is its cast, several character choices let the show’s overall quality down. For instance, while Simon (Imani) is a charming presence, Claudia’s (Niles) choice to keep shooting herself in the foot, and blaming everyone for the results by extension, does not make her an enjoyable villain. Despite Niles’ exceptional performance, Claudia leans too heavily on the evil stepmother trope. In a show that subverts stereotypes, Claudia would have benefited from a similar treatment. The series also does Orebiyi’s Gus a disservice by giving the character the beginnings of many interesting plots that Riches never fully commits to.
Those characterization struggles notwithstanding, Riches is a riveting and fun binge, worthy of your attention. The series is unapologetically British and authentically Nigerian, painting its characters in nuanced colors that black people – particularly African people – are rarely allowed to thrive in. Riches ultimately shines the brightest when it embraces all the allowances that come with the cultures it celebrates. Moments like Nina’s Ekaro greeting, the correct pronunciation of Yoruba names, and the unprovoked dragging of Ghanaian Jollof in the pilot, as well as the show’s amazing music and soundtrack, will all ring true for millions of Nigerians in diaspora who rarely – if ever – have the opportunity to see an accurate representation of themselves in Western media.
While early episodes showed promise, the drama you want kicks off at the midway mark; this is where the twists and turns are served and Okoye’s Wanda is given more to do, allowing for an expansion of her character motivations, relevance to the overall story and a platform to showcase Okoye’s talent. Overall, the series benefited from a tight six-episode order which allowed for every moment on screen to push its story forward in one way or the other, as sadly, the murder mystery and embezzlement storylines would not be as interesting with a longer episode run. What’s more, the big twist of the series is unfortunately foreshadowed by the fact one of the show’s key players is underutilized and given little to do despite a ubiquitous presence on the show.
The comparisons to genre forebears like Dynasty and Succession are inevitable. However, this show stands on its own merits, infusing diverse culture into a well-worn genre — a testament to Abby Ajayi’s leadership as series creator, executive producer, and director. Prime Video’s latest charming family drama makes the wise choice to wrap most of its biggest threads by the end of the season’s run, giving viewers answers to some of the most pressing questions. Riches, instead, chooses to conclude its freshman season by setting up new plotlines that will make a potential Season 2 an even more compelling watch.
Riches premieres on Prime Video on December 2.