“When I was a child, my father was framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Before he died, he left a road map for revenge that led me to the people who destroyed our lives.”
Daytime sudsers may be going the way of the dodo and video stores, but the nighttime soap is alive and well. TNT’s successful revival of Dallas this past summer reminded us that something old could be new again. However, ABC’s excellent Revenge first began scratching our soap opera itch last fall, providing all the deliciously devious drama — including double identities, convenient amnesia, a high-profile murder trial and even a surprise pregnancy — we could ever want on its way to becoming a hit.
Revenge — inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” — is the story of Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp), a wealthy young woman who arrives at the Hamptons near the start of one summer and proceeds to stealthily rock the lives of the rich and powerful. At the top of that hierarchy is the Grayson family — led by Victoria (Madeleine Stowe) and Conrad (Henry Czerny) Grayson — the closest thing to American royalty. What the Graysons don’t know is that Emily Thorne’s real name is Amanda Clarke. They also don’t know she’s come the Hamptons to exact revenge on all the people responsible for betraying her father, (James Tupper, in flashbacks), and framing him for a heinous crime committed by Conrad through his own company. Still, Emily has saved most of her hatred for Victoria because Victoria’s betrayal of her father cut the deepest.
Emily’s plan involves infiltrating the Graysons with help from her unwitting friend Ashley (Ashley Madekwe) and getting close to Victoria and Conrad’s son, Daniel (Josh Bowman). Complicating matters is the re-emergence of Jack Porter (Nick Wechsler) — a friendly face from her childhood — and the possibility that she might develop genuine feelings for Daniel. (If you’re scoring at home, Emily’s two love interests are “Jack Daniel.”) Jack’s younger brother Declan (Connor Paolo) also becomes entangled with the Graysons when he falls for Daniel’s younger sister Charlotte (Christa B. Allen), which is a problem because Declan comes from the wrong side of the tracks. (For people in the Hamptons, “the wrong side of the tracks” is apparently Montauk.) Emily’s schemes sometimes require her to begrudgingly get help from Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann), an eccentric tech billionaire. Emily’s father was the only person who believed in Nolan’s company when he was starting out, so Nolan is eager to help and protect Emily.
Revenge immediately grabs your attention with a peek at a murder that won’t be solved until mid-season, and because most nighttime soaps don’t kick off with a quote from Confucius. (“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”) More impressively, the show keeps your attention with action-packed episodes that almost never feel rushed and an impressive ability to evolve on the fly. The first handful of episodes were basically a glitzy procedural, with Emily elaborately punishing a different conspirator each week. (Her father’s secretary, the prosecutor on his case, etc.) However, the people behind the show — led by creator Mike Kelley — seemed to realize that wouldn’t be a sustainable format and switched gears before it had a chance to become tiresome.
Let’s get one thing straight: Revenge is often a ridiculous show: Emily appears to be a strategic genius on par with Napoleon Bonaparte or Bill Walsh, while Nolan — allegedly one of the richest, most successful men on the planet — has nothing better to do with his time than serve as Emily’s minion and indulge his man-crush on Jack. Fortunately, the strong cast keeps things grounded and keeps us from rolling our eyes.
VanCamp (Brothers and Sisters, Evewood) gives an underrated, poker-faced performance. I’m not saying VanCamp is on the same level as Jon Hamm or Michael C. Hall, but her acting challenge is similar to that of the protagonists on Mad Men and Dexter: she’s asked to play a character who is “acting” almost the entire time. VanCamp also lets us see the cracks beneath the surface when her plans spin out of control and she starts to lose her way. If VanCamp’s work is poker-faced, then Stowe’s work is more frozen-faced as Victoria. However, “Queen” Victoria’s perpetual mask only makes her cruelty and bitchy putdowns — especially when she smacks down a rival in episode 5 — more unsettling. Victoria takes an immediate dislike to Emily. Of course, the not-so-subtle joke is that Emily and Victoria have more in common than either would care to admit.
Mann’s ambi-sexual pastel enthusiast is great with a one-liner, but the actor also nicely plays Nolan’s inherent loneliness and desperate need to belong to something…even if it’s a dangerous revenge plot. That contrasts nicely with Emily’s single-minded focus and reluctance to make friends. (However, here’s hoping they dial Nolan back a bit: it seemed as if the writers and Mann became aware in the middle of the season how popular the character was, and he became over the top.) Czerny is sneakily hilarious as the aristocratic Conrad. I thoroughly enjoy his face-offs with Victoria, in which manages to say things like “You look like a demonic succubus” with a straight face. Ashton Holmes is absolutely terrific as Tyler Barrol, another Hamptons interloper interested in the Grayson lifestyle and a sort of dark reflection of Emily. Since Emily’s two love interests are consistently kept in the dark about her true identity, they occasionally come off as dueling dimwits. Bowman and (especially) Wechsler are likable enough to make you care that these guys are being manipulated. (Daniel, in particular, struggles so much with his desire to break away from his devious family, you’ll want to smack him upside his head.)
Standout episodes include the table-setting pilot directed by Philip Noyce (Salt, Patriot Games), Ep. 5/”Guilt” (when the show starts to move beyond it’s “Revenge of the Week” format), Ep. 7/”Charade” (one complication for Emily departs, another one arrives), Ep. 11/”Duress” (Tyler at his most unhinged), Ep. 13/”Commitment” (VanCamp’s best work; Emily questions her mission, but finds her resolve), Ep. 15/”Chaos” (just for how it was weaved with the pilot from a technical perspective) and Ep. 21/”Grief” (the season’s penultimate episode hints at larger forces beyond the Hamptons). The only letdown for me was Ep. 20/”Legacy” (a thoroughly unnecessary flashback episode that halted the season’s forward momentum). The entertaining finale featured some intriguing cliffhangers, but stopped just short of greatness.
The season featured some misfires. The Declan/Charlotte romance was tiresome in the way that self-absorbed teenagers can be tiresome, and a storyline involving James Purefoy (Rome) as a man from Victoria’s past didn’t really go anywhere. Still, one of my favorite things about Revenge is that even the parts that don’t really work — Declan’s silly working class accent, Ashley’s uselessness as a party planner, the ridiculous wigs VanCamp has to wear in flashbacks — are fun to make fun of.
Revenge is a ton of fun to watch, period. (My girlfriend and I practically yelled, “Revenge!” every time one of Emily’s enemies got their comeuppance.) The show invites the audience to gawk at an unattainable lifestyle and shrewdly trades on our desire to watch deplorable rich people who don’t deserve to live that large get punished. By the end of this first season, I took so much glee in watching Emily bring people down that “it does appear you despicable people are starting to rub off on me.”
Revenge: The Complete First Season is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. There’s no sugarcoating it: this DVD presentation is a significant downgrade from the original HD broadcast on ABC. (Where I first became addicted to this show.) Panoramic shots look pretty good, but the difference is most noticeable in medium shots and, especially, close-ups. The sharp, crystal clear picture from the HD broadcast has been replaced by a roughness that betrays the show’s glamorous setting. The colors are ok, if a bit muted. The transfer is slightly better in Discs 3-5, which feature four episodes instead of five like the first two discs. In the end, it’s an acceptable image that isn’t quite distractingly bad, but doesn’t even come close to presenting the show at its best.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track, on the other hand, is pretty solid. Dialogue comes through cleanly and there’s a surprising amount of immersion. Your speakers will consistently pump out the gusting wind and crashing waves occurring just off-screen. Nice balance between the score, dialogue and sound effects. The one issue I had involved a few instances where Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR) was painfully obvious.
Nolan Ross Exposed: (3:05) At first, I thought this featurette would feature Mann talking about how he created his quirky character. Instead, it turns out to be an interview with Nolan that takes place within the show’s universe. It starts off amusingly enough with Nolan at his pissy best, but takes an intriguing turn when he is asked about an unnamed woman claiming responsibility for his success. Nolan gets upset, cancels the interview and demands to get a hold of the tape, which we learn is in the hands of a familiar face. Did they just introduce a Season 2 plot point in these DVD extras? I like it!
Roadmap to Revenge: (13:37) The cast and crew — including Kelley, who states that “Revenge is the mother of all story engines” — talk about picking the Hamptons as a setting (lots of wealthy people with problems in a place most people have heard of, but never visited) and working on the show. It’s especially fun to hear from the writers, who happily brag about getting to do pretty much anything they want on this outrageous show.
At Home in “The Hamptons”: (8:20) Ashley Madekwe takes us on a tour of the massive sets where the show makes it home. (After filming its pilot in Wilmington, N.C.) We see Grayson manor, Emily’s beach cottage and the Stowaway bar. Madekwe proves to be such a charming host, I’m rooting for the writers to actually give Ashley something significant to do next year. (She was finally making ambitious moves toward the end of Season 1.)
Haute Hamptons: Femme Fatale Fashion: (7:47) Costume designer Jill Ohanneson talks about how she matched VanCamp (Grace Kelly, both Hepburns) and Stowe’s (sensual but elegant) wardrobes to their characters. Ohanneson also spotlights specific looks from the season. This featurette was too long for my taste.
Bloopers: (2:55) I found it really amusing to see the cast crack up amidst all the melodramatic dialogue they have to spout. (It’s especially funny to see the intense Stowe and VanCamp screw up.) I actually would’ve been ok with a little more material.
Deleted Scenes: (35:14) Each disc contains deleted scenes from episodes pertaining to that disc. There are 38 scenes total, and almost all of them are completely inessential and feature moments the audience can puzzle out by themselves. (The lowlight is a 17-second scene in Disc 2 where Declan massages Charlotte’s feet. That’s it…that’s the scene!) Features a Play All option.
Music Videos: Features two music videos: Angus & Julia Stone’s, “For You” (2:20) is pretty much a promo video inter-cutting footage of the musicians with moments from the pilot, while Christina Perri’s, “Distance” (4:06) focuses on the Emily/Jack/Daniel love triangle.
Pilot Commentary with creator Mike Kelley and actor Emily VanCamp: Recorded while Season 1 was still in production, Kelley is a wealth of information. The show’s creator gives us a glimpse into the fluid nature of TV production when he admits he hadn’t yet decided the identity of the person killed in the pilot’s opening scene at the time the episode was filmed (A stand-in was used for the shot.) He also sprinkles in intriguing nuggets of information for fans of the show, such as the fact that Ashley(?!) was the first character who was cast. VanCamp mostly chimes in to compliment her fellow actors and point out how cold it was in Wilmington while they were filming.
Revenge – The Complete First Season features 22 episodes on five discs. I really wish the show had been released on Blu-ray along with ABC’s fellow freshman hit, Once Upon a Time. I understand why the more effects-heavy Once Upon a Time got the nod, but I’d argue the impeccable look of Revenge — which is practically as otherworldly — is a major part of its appeal.
The show will join Once Upon a Time on Sunday nights this fall and appropriately take up residence in the time slot formerly occupied by Desperate Housewives, ABC’s departed soapy sensation. I keep reading about how Revenge is the great new guilty pleasure on TV. The only problem is I don’t feel the least bit guilty about how much I enjoy this show.