The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Revenge

Written by: Les Chappell, Special to CC2K

In his CC2K debut, Les Chappell shines a spotlight on the exciting world of Revenge, and explains why it is much more than a guilty pleasure.

It was commonly accepted that last February’s Oscar telecast was one of the duller offerings the Academy had put out in recent years. After the painful disaster that was James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2011 they went as far back to formula as they could, recruiting Billy Crystal to run the show in the exact same mothballed way he’d done seemingly 17 times before. On top of that, the roster of films nominated wasn’t exactly buzz-worthy, with the win for The Artist a foregone conclusion before the night even started.

However, there was one moment during the entire affair that actually got my attention: a commercial for ABC’s Revenge. In 30 seconds, it eclipsed every bit of award show stupor with a deliberately over-the-top, hyper-stylized affair that featured broken glass, showers of pills, blood flicked at the screen and an operatic build that culminated in its main character walking out of the fire promising “I’m just getting started.”

Forgetting briefly that I was attending an Oscar party (and that Twitter and real life operate by different rules of etiquette), I loudly yelled “REVENGE!” at the end of the commercial and was looked at askance by fellow partygoers for the rest of the night.

But then again, that’s the hold that Revenge, which returns to ABC Wednesday night after being gone for six weeks, has on its fan base. Revenge has turned out to be one of the unexpected joys of the 2011-2012 television season, transforming from a somewhat artificial start into a perpetual motion machine of actions and consequences. I’m not usually a fan of traditional soap operas, but Twitter buzz led me to catch up with this one on Hulu, and after devouring it in a week of catch-up viewings, it’s turned into a show I have more fun following week to week than most anything else on TV.

For the uninitiated, Revenge is presented as a Count of Monte Cristo-style story centered on Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp), a mysterious and wealthy young woman who comes to the Hamptons and quickly inserts herself into the summer’s social scene. However, Emily isn’t just entering the Hamptons, she’s returning to a place where she was once known by another name. When she was only a little girl, her father David Clarke was framed for collaborating with a terrorist group, his reputation destroyed, and sent to prison where he eventually died trying to uncover the truth. Emily has now taken his research and applied it to ruin everyone who destroyed her life, with her crosshairs firmly set on the conspiracy’s masterminds Conrad and Victoria Grayson (Henry Czerny and Madeline Stowe).

So what made Revenge stand out against other network forays into prime-time soap opera drama? Well, at first it seemed to be playing a different game than other shows. In the first four episodes, Revenge seemed to be setting itself up as a “revenge of the week” style procedural, in which Emily would take down one of the many people she held responsible for ruining her father while climbing higher and higher in the echelons of society. We saw Emily take vengeance on an entire investment firm for the sole purpose of ruining the CEO who testified against her father, expose a dozen private therapy sessions at a garden party to destroy the therapist who kept her institutionalized, and destroy the political career of the prosecutor turned senator who sent her father to solitary for life.

But after a few installments of this, the show started to reorient itself to show the toll Emily’s scorched-earth policy had taken on the various members of the Hamptons society, and became less about her goals, as the consequences those goals had generated. Suddenly, Emily was no longer an untouchable mastermind, but someone who had to improvise on the fly when Victoria’s head of security started snooping around. Her plan to insinuate herself into the Grayson family by romancing their son Daniel (Josh Bowman) was complicated, both by her developing feelings for him and some unfinished business with her childhood friend Jack (Nick Weschler). Cracks in the Grayson marriage were gradually chipped away as various infidelities were revealed, and as either Conrad or Victoria tried to cover their tracks they just made it worse. Quite simply, Revenge figured out how to do things organically, and has a solid enough memory for its plot points that it knows what to nurture and where it would lead things.

It also helped that as time went on the show realized which of its early storylines didn’t work out. Certain dud storylines, like Conrad’s affair with Victoria’s best friend Lydia (Amber Valletta) or relationship drama with Victoria’s daughter Charlotte (Christa B. Allen) were shunted out of the way in favor of new ones, such as introducing Daniel’s manipulative best friend Tyler (Ashton Holmes), who threw a further wrench into Emily’s planning. Stories involving Jack’s family bar have now been tied more into the main narrative, to the point where it doesn’t feel anymore like we’ve stepped into the Hamptons’ version of The O.C.

The other side of the appeal of Revenge is that showrunner Mike Kelley (creator of CBS’s short-lived Swingtown) and company don’t appear to have to have any illusions about what they’re doing. This isn’t a show that’s trying to get into a social message about terrorism or uneven distribution of wealth – even though virtually every character is in the “one percent” – but one that completely understands that it’s creating a story where the drama can be overly dramatic and the plot points can stray into ridiculous territory. Not to say it’s meta about being a soap opera in the way Community is regularly meta about being a sitcom, rather it knows there’s a lot of fun to be had in simply presenting a story like this, and it embraces that sense of fun.

If the Oscars preview wasn’t enough to prove this, allow me to walk through some various plot points in the show as I try to keep a straight face. Emily and Victoria are both so wealthy that money is no object to furthering their various schemes, and they can write million-dollar checks without batting an eye – at one point Emily reveals she bought an entire apartment building for the sole purpose of filming one resident’s romantic trysts. Her new name of Emily Thorne turned out to have been purchased from her old roommate at the juvenile detention facility, and the new Amanda Clarke is now a stripper that commits murder to protect Emily’s secret – and wants to be a part of her life. An influential Japanese CEO took Emily under his wing after she was released, meaning that Emily literally had a sensei mentor her in the art of revenge. A key element of several episodes’ plot isn’t an incriminating document or a photograph (though those do exist) but a flash drive/portable camera shaped like a whale.

And while not exactly soap opera, there is also a yellow Labrador named Sammy, who was Emily’s puppy as a child and who, if the show’s chronology is correct, is at least 18 years old. (My theory is that it’ll turn out to be a horcrux whose death will be necessary to complete Emily’s revenge.)

All of this is really ridiculous when taken out of context, but in context it manages to be really entertaining in its ridiculousness. Even when Emily’s engaging in the overblown fortune cookie-style narration to open and close every episode, there’s a tangible sense of fun in how portentous it makes everything seem.

A large part of that has been that as the plotting has improved, the cast has also grown more into their roles. Emily’s gone from being an icy schemer to someone increasingly trying to maintain a façade of control, and VanCamp has rolled with the punches to portray her increasing paranoia and uncertainty. Stowe has carried herself throughout with an imperious unflappability, and Holmes embraced being a borderline sociopath with such gusto all he needed was a mustache to twirl. Other performers like Bowman and Weschler are still a bit more wooden, but Kelley and company seem to recognize this and are purposely giving them material that’s testing their limits – murderous girlfriends, high-stakes financial decisions, and a long stint at Rikers Island to name a few.

The standout of the cast has probably been Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann), a software tycoon and reluctant ally in Emily’s schemes. After coming across in the pilot as an entitled, antisocial twit, Nolan has morphed into one of the show’s most beloved characters as we learned his sarcasm was a defense mechanism for a broken and rather lonely individual – a trait I’ve dubbed Logan Echolls Syndrome. Mann has gone to town with the character, selling both his joy at playing along with Emily’s schemes and his increasing horror at the extent she’s gone to. (Though I’m still not sure why he insists on wearing two collared shirts. It really does make him look like a tool.)

As we return to the narrative this week, it’ll be interesting to see exactly what Revenge thinks it’s going to be in the home stretch. We’ve now caught up to the in medias res moment presented in the very first scene of the pilot, and after this Wednesday’s episode we’re told the action will jump ahead a few months. The show’s ratings appear solid enough that it’s a safe bet for a second season renewal, but I have honestly no idea where the action will be going after this – or truthfully, if the continual raising of the stakes can support the show’s action into a second season.

And you know what? Honestly, I’m at a point where I don’t care, and I simply want to follow this story to wherever it takes us. In an era where a lot of shows don’t know what they want to be and are awful as a result, Revenge knows exactly what it is, and it happens to be a hell of a lot of fun to watch. REVENGE!