TV Review: ABC's 'Revenge'
Revenge, it turns out, is not a dish best served dull
In the classic "Simpsons" episode "Day of the Jackanapes," Sideshow Bob is released from prison with only one thing in mind: Revenge [in this case, against Krusty for erasing all of the tapes from their classic shows together].
Sideshow Bob is monomaniacal and in one scene, he plunks himself down on a TV studio catwalk and observes, "Ah, the catwalk. The perfect vantage point... for revenge."
He then pulls out a bag of savory snacks and opines, "Ah, kettle chips. The perfect side dish... for revenge."
Finally, as a brainwashed Bart moves in the direction of Krusty with a bomb strapped to his chest, Sideshow Bob caps the joke.
"Well, Krusty, this is your Waterloo. Soon, you'll be Napoleon Blown-apart," he says. A crew member objects, but Bob adds, "It was the perfect pun... for revenge."
In its perpetual and near-infinite wisdom, "The Simpsons" was poking fun at the convention that when fictional characters determine that it's time for revenge, they almost never go out and just get revenge. Instead, they talk about it endlessly and portentously. They won't freaking shut up about their need for revenge. And finally, you're all, "Oh my God. Just get your revenge already!"
"Day of the Jackanapes" and kettle chips came to mind several times while I watched the first two episodes of ABC's new drama "Revenge," in which the main character spends so much time talking about her need for revenge that an "Oh my God. Just get your revenge already!" reaction is almost inevitable. And while the character does, indeed, slowly begin to get said revenge, it's an almost joyless endeavor.
Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but there's a difference between "cold" and "emotionless and dull," a distinction "Revenge" is unable to make in the early going.
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"Revenge" launches with an in medias res opening that lets us know that before five months of adventures are up, Emily VanCamp's Emily Thorne will be on the verge of marrying into one of the Hamptons' most powerful families, but that one of our regular characters is going to be murdered.
Murdered... for REVENGE? Dunno. We'll find out.
Anyway, flash back and we discover that Emily is the mysterious new girl in the Hamptons. She's beautiful, rich and looks great in any outfit.
And Emily has decided that the Hamptons is the perfect summer spot... for REVENGE.
You see, Emily Thorne wasn't always Emily Thorne. Once upon a time, she was a little girl with a perfect life and an adoring father (James Tupper), until her dad was accused of a pretty heinous crime and sent away for good. But Emily's dad apparently wasn't guilty and he was set up by a vast criminal conspiracy including basically every single person in the Hamptons. After a respectable period of absence spent going through puberty and memorizing the "revenge" section of "Bartlett's Quotations," Emily has returned. Nobody recognizes her, but they recognize that when slender blonde white girls show up at in the Hamptons with inexhaustible bank accounts, they're a welcome addition to any event.
Soon, Emily is rubbing shoulders with Victoria "Queen Victoria" Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), belle of the Hamptons ball, plus her husband Conrad Grayson (Henry Czerny) and studly son Daniel Grayson (Josh Bowman), but not Lord Greystoke, because that would be Tarzan. Also moving around within the upper crust, but on the periphery, is tech billionaire Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann), the one man possibly perceptive enough to see through Emily's different name.
Although most of the story in "Revenge" is spent on the "Upstairs" side of things, there's a "Downstairs" element as well, featuring townies Jack (Nick Wechsler) and Declan (Connor Paolo), who are essentially good people, because as everybody knows, rich people all want to set your father up for murder (and deserve... revenge), while blue collar people are all the salt of the Earth.
"Revenge" is extraordinarily loosely based on Alexandre Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo," but the basis is so loose that acknowledging it would be giving the Mike Kelley-scripted pilot way more literary credit than it deserves. There's zero point in my going through the major plot changes that impact and undo the entire nature of the Dumas story, so let's just say that this series is every bit as much "Secret Revenge Millionaire" as it is "Count of Monte Cristo."
"Count of Monte Cristo" is a tremendously satisfying book and it prolongs that satisfaction across 1000+ pages in its unexpurgated version. It's the construction of the story that makes "Monte Cristo" so great and fittingly, but unrelatedly, it's the construction of "Revenge" that makes it so unsatisfying.
The show has to lose the voice-over. It's horrible. Emily VanCamp has a sweet and soothing voice, but she doesn't have a voice-over voice, especially not when all she's doing is reading cliches about revenge or twisted nonsense like "Two wrongs can never make a right, because two wrongs can never equal each other." I'm sorry. That sentence may seem profound if you don't give it an iota of thought, but it doesn't have any meaning whatsoever in the story of a twentysomething girl trying to destroy the people who ruined her childhood. Or "When deception cuts this deep, someone has to pay." These are just words. Bland. Empty. Words. I know that thanks to Shonda Rhimes, ABC has an in-house style that says that having your female lead narrate nothingness at the start of every episode is a worthy strategy, but delaying, pontificating and obfuscating sets a very poor table for... REVENGE.
The show also needs to lose the unenlightening episode closing revelation for how Emily got her revenge-of-the-week. Usually accompanied by the aforementioned voiceover, both of the episodes I've seen have ended with the revelation that Emily's revenge was gained... exactly in the most obvious way one would have expected.
Oh yeah. Did I mention that "Revenge" is a revenge procedural? So many flipping people scorned Emily Thorne, that she's got a picture and she's able to check off one piece of revenge per week (at least thus far). This isn't a strategy I would mind, except that the structure forces the methodical to become formulaic in a way that also renders the revenge all the more bloodless.
"Revenge" isn't a good show, but it also isn't a satisfying guilty pleasure, because nobody's having nearly enough fun for viewers to catch the fever.
VanCamp, who I loved on "Everwood" and had no troubles with on "Bothers & Sisters," is too passive a leading lady for this role. As I see it, Emily can have two responses to all of this revenge she's taking: She can either be loving it or it can be tearing her apart inside (or, in a perfect world I guess, both of these things should be true). The response that VanCamp is taking is closer to "robotically efficient." That left me neither rooting for her nor against her and having no real interest in how any of this is impacting her soul. On the other hand, VanCamp looks marvelous throughout, donning one gorgeous gown and hairstyle after another. She's Genteel Revenge Barbie.
Of the slew of potential love interests, I'm not sure there's a prize-winner. Bowman looks like a pumped up version of Bret Harrison, but doesn't convey much other than a square jaw. Wechsler is broody, but forgettable. And Mann is being held back either by the costumes or the writing, flattening a character who ought to eccentric enough to boost the energy level of everybody around him. But Mann, like most of the cast, is so patrician as to just be anemic. ["Gossip Girl" vet Paolo is both woefully miscast and stuck in a D-story that trips "Revenge" up whenever it appears.]
I'm not sure what show Madeleine Stowe is on, but she gets it. When she's onscreen, "Revenge" gets a pulse. Sometimes she goes a little into camp, but "Revenge" could use more of that sort of extreme and if everybody were on that page, this would be a more enjoyable show. But Stowe usually doesn't even resort to that broadness. She plays "Queen Victoria" as cold and calculating and dangerous. By the end of the second episode, the Emily vs. Victoria battle lines were drawn and I was firmly Team Victoria in a way that the producers couldn't possibly want. Maybe you're supposed to have emerging sympathy for Victoria, but you're definitely not supposed to want her to turn the tables and crush Emily. But Stowe is good enough that that's what I was rooting for. [You may recall that I had the same issue with ABC's "V" reboot, taking sides with Morena Baccarin's Anna against humanity.]
If you call your pilot "Revenge," you've chosen a brazen emphasis that almost demands a little exploitation and trashiness and I don't doubt pilot director Phillip Noyce, a tremendous crafter of top-notch genre B-movies, could have gone in that direction. But Noyce is stifling himself, using only the occasional Dutch angle or POV shot, when you can almost feel him waiting to go berserk. You've got the director of "Dead Calm" and "Blind Fury" here. Why wouldn't you let him go nuts?
But "Revenge" is restrained at all times. Nobody's enjoying their lifestyle. Nobody's enjoying the excess. And nobody's enjoying the payback. And that's probably why I didn't enjoy "Revenge."
"Revenge" premieres on Wednesday (Sept. 21) at 10 p.m. on ABC.