I shouldn’t have found Revenge enjoyable. It’s clichéd, it’s soapy, and its characters are not exactly diverse. And Revenge shouldn’t have been successful. It’s a complicated, heavily-serialized drama; and there are hardly any cops, doctors, or lawyers in sight. But if there’s one thing television has taught me, it’s that expectations and preconceptions mean squat.
The story tracks the vengeance taken by Emily Thorne, (née Amanda Clark), whose father, David, was scapegoated for a terrorist-related money-laundering act by the wealthy Grayson family and later killed in prison. Years later, during her teen delinquent years, Emily learns of the framing and the coverup and enlists a Japanese sensei to show her the ways of revenge and uses the resources of a wealthy billionaire named Nolan (a former cohort of her father). After years of plotting, she moves into a beach cottage in the shadow of the Grayson’s mansion and woos their son, Daniel; but she really has feelings for her childhood friend Jack Porter, now a barkeep in a seaside dive bar. She begins covertly laying bare the Graysons’ secrets and stretching the family’s tensions to their breaking point. The matriarch of the Grayson family—and queen of Hamptons society—is Victoria, whose devotion to her family’s secrets and social standing clashes with her residual love for David Clark (with whom she had an affair). Along for the ride are Ashley, a social-climbing assistant to the Graysons; Declan, Jack’s brother; and Declan’s crush, Charlotte, who just happens to be the Graysons’ daughter.
Emily VanCamp, whom I enjoyed on Brothers and Sisters and whom other TV fans remember fondly from Everwood, plays the role of Emily with relish, having perfected the art of the icy glare and the conniving eye-narrow. (My one quibble with her character—and I’m not sure if this is a fault in the chemistry, the writing, or Ms. VanCamp’s performance—is that her faux-mance with Daniel never seems more than lukewarm. I guess Daniel is a bit of a fool for believing the charade.) But the real star is Madeleine Stowe, whose Victoria is one of the year’s most delectable characters. And the producers seem to value her most: she receives top billing in the credits, though Ms. VanCamp undoubtedly has more screen time. Victoria is polite, well-groomed, and rarely overtly emotional, reflecting how she values appearances above all else: over love, over trust, over human connection. That said, she doesn’t keep every feeling hidden: her fake, “I actually hate you” smile is transparently thin; she wants her social underlings to know their place. She also never hides her disapproval of her son’s relationship with Emily, and she and Emily engage in a cold war of cordiality, as if they’re competing to see whose pleasantries can be the most backhanded and innuendo-laden.
The show is unabashedly soapy, and indeed, all the trappings are evidence here: murders, affairs, backstabbings, love triangles, suicide attempts, surprise pregnancies, switched identities. None of these plot developments arethat surprising, but these cliches don’t detract from the enjoyment either. In fact, the only trope that seems tired is the reveal that—spoiler alert!—a larger conspiratorial organization is behind the entire cover-up. This plot point seems like a blatant ploy to prime the narrative pump for the second season.
Classism pervades the story: the Graysons are elitist and extremely exclusive. There’s much talk of keeping the “riffraff” out of the Hamptons, and the Graysons and their wealthy friends consider lower-to-middle-class citizens (like the Porters) to be second-class citizens. That said, the show is a little heavy-handed on associating wealth and privilege with corruption and immorality; and mentions of the 1% and the Occupy movements seem like forced attempts at relevance. Other themes include vigilante justice (and its unchecked lawlessness and collateral damage) and the clash between self-preservation and morality. But the show never delves too deeply into these themes, and nor should it: it’s a plot-focused series whose superficiality keeps the narrative progressing at a nice clip.
Though the show is serialized, many of the first episodes relatively self-contained. In these installments, Emily made broad-stroke plans for punishing the Graysons while going after the family’s accomplices one-by-one. Each of those episodes began with the reveal of the accomplice’s crime and ended with Emily exacting her retribution via public disgrace, financial ruin, career destruction, and even life’s-work-torching. The writers were smart to make these episodes more open-and-shut at a time when the show was still building a following. But aside from that, these episodes were actually the most fun to watch because Emily’s schemes were so apparent to us viewers. The series is less engaging when her plans are kept closer to the vest. We wanna be in on the plotting!
The show also has two other assets. For one, Nolan, is a delightfully unique character. He’s wealthy but good-hearted, which provides a nice foil to the Graysons. He’s well-spoken and witty (e.g. coining the term “revengenda”). He’s also a bit squirmy and eccentric. And this particular TV critic appreciates that his sexuality is amorphous and, beyond that, never made out to be a big deal.
The other asset is the introduction of the original Emily Thorne, the girl whom our Emily met in juvie and with whom our Emily switched identities. Not only does she become a player in the revenge plot, but she also flourishes in her new life, especially when she falls for Jack, who ignorantly thinks that she’s his long-lost childhood crush. Thus, our Emily’s love for Jack is impeded not only by her fake relationship with Daniel but also by the fake Amanda capitalizing on the backstory our Emily gave her. (Have I mentioned that it’s very difficult to describe an identity-switch storyline?)
No, Revenge isn’t a show that’s particularly smart or even all that original, but it doesn’t need to be. The writers have taken a glamorous world, populated it with interesting characters all with their own agendas, and situated it in a sprawling story of conspiracies and intrigue. Sure, this story has flaws, implausibilities, and plotholes. But, honestly, who the hell cares? This is fun, addictive television; and a show hardly needs to be Emmy-worthy to be entertaining.