People who scam their church congregation and naïve lottery winners, even their mother, have all appeared on “American Greed,” the show that documents the dark side of the American dream. Part of the appeal is watching the scam unfold and marveling at both the audacity of the person’s plan to steal tens of millions from family, friends, clients and employers and the ostentatious displays of wealth, all while knowing that he or she will be brought to justice. The other part of the show’s appeal is the great Stacy Keach who, along with being an award-winning stage, screen and television actor, is the best narrator in primetime.
Keach weaves tales of schemes so egregious and desire for wealth and power so insatiable, it’s hard to believe they are actually true. And he does so using clichés that somehow sound wise and wonderful. How does a controller of a family owned fruitcake empire, for example, fund a lifestyle he can’t possible afford? As Keach quips, “It’s easy when you’re spending other people’s dough.”
In the episode (Season 11: “Sticky Fingers/Life in the Fraud Lane”), Sandy, the controller, steals $16 million over an eight-year period. His plan is not so clever that most of us couldn’t have come up with it and yet he isn’t found out even when he drives a Bentley through his small Texas town, regularly uses private planes for travel and buys dozens of luxury watches. (His wife, a little savvier about the relationship between conspicuous consumption and small-town gossip, insists that her yearly new car purchase be made in the same color as the year before so as not to get people talking). It’s thanks to an inheritance, Sandy says to everyone who wonders about how his latest purchase makes sense on a controller’s salary.
It’s impossible not to shake your head in disbelief, wondering how someone could so easily deflect suspicion, let alone get away with a check scheme so obvious it should take a day or two to uncover. And that’s what makes this series entertaining. It sucks you in with stories of unbelievably bold crimes committed by ordinary people. Then it wraps those crimes around lifestyles of the one percent and tops them off with a morality lesson.
When it all crashes down in a satisfying arrest because fellow employees start to investigate (as is the case for Sandy), investment clients start to realize they are being stalled or law enforcement grows too curious, the strange story reaches its expected conclusion. The guilty are punished and lessons are learned. Turns out it’s not smart to let the controller of your fruitcake business write the checks and balance the books. And it’s never a good idea to give every penny you own to one guy who always seems to be hard to reach, even if he is your son.
Keach presents more stories of avarice in a new season of “American Greed” on Mondays at 10 p.m. EDT on CNBC.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.