This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Carrie Raisler, who’ll review the show week to week, and Todd VanDerWerff talk about Revenge.
Revenge debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Carrie: Often, when people describe a show with enjoyable elements that doesn’t quite come together for them, they say there’s a good show trying to get out if only the writers can “find” that show. Revenge, with its mishmash of enjoyable nighttime soap trappings and oddly solemn tone, seems like a prime candidate for a description like this. The thing is, I don’t think there’s any other show inside of Revenge just waiting to burst out. The Revenge of the (very assuredly crafted) pilot seems to be exactly what the creators want the show to be, and I have a feeling many people will watch it, expect something different, and be disappointed.
This saddens me a bit because if you want a slightly over-serious nighttime soap full of scheming, double crossing, hidden agendas and lies, you could certainly do worse than Revenge. (You could watch Ringer!) This isn’t the second coming of those gloriously over-the-top ’80s soaps like Dynasty or Knots Landing. Revenge is serious business, albeit serious business about something rather silly. It’s a fairly ingeniously structured yet oddly stiff show about one woman’s quest to light everything around her on fire and watch it burn, and despite the somewhat incongruously grave tone, I found myself quietly entranced with this world.
Former Everwood star Emily VanCamp is Emily Thorne, a young woman obsessed with getting revenge against what appears to be a large, interconnected web of people who framed her father for a crime he didn’t commit. She re-enters the privileged world she left as an innocent child as a hardened adult, complete with a new identity and a singular focus. Her main target is queen of the Hamptons Victoria Grayson, played with icy perfection by Madeleine Stowe. There’s a whole world of Hamptons elite surrounding them, but from the look of the pilot everything will essentially be revolving around their give and take, which is definitely to the benefit of the show as all of their interactions were charged with an intriguing dangerous energy. One way or the other, they’re headed on a collision course straight for each other.
Beyond the two leading ladies, the aspect of the pilot that satisfied me most was its structure. It starts off with the familiar trope of showing you what appears to be the season’s end point (hint: it’s not going to be rainbows and puppies), and then flashes back to previous events for the rest of the season to fill in the blanks. While not at all original, in this instance it really feels necessary to establish stakes for the story, as well as offer a bit of mystery right out of the gate. Also, it throws the audience right into this attractive world and manages to at least establish every character’s presence in a very quick sequence. It’s economical, world-building, and intriguing all at the same time.
In addition to this structural element, it appears each week Emily will be getting her revenge on a different one of her foes, which is kind of a hilarious way to give your story some bones. It’s like a procedural, but with revenge instead of murder! But maybe sometimes murder, too! I would complain about something so rigid being imposed on the episodes, but the revenge scheme pulled off in the pilot was fairly satisfying, in its totality and simplicity. If they can make the other episodes as satisfying as this one the structure will work just fine.
Aside from the typical Hamptons elite, Revenge also focuses on a working class family with old ties to Emily and her father. Their scenes in the pilot, mostly revolving around Nick Wechsler’s put-upon good guy Jack, felt a bit perfunctory but are inevitably going to dovetail with what is going on in Emily’s world much more than it is now. It also gives the show an avenue to explore class issues, although I’m not sure this is something Revenge is particularly interested in. Still, the door is at least open.
Revenge does offer a fairly solemn take on the act of revenge, but it’s unclear whether or not the show feels it has something poignant to say about the whole conceit. (The pilot opens with the Confucius quote “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves,” which does feel a bit self-important—and simultaneously kind of goofy—though thematically relevant). We’re obviously supposed to side with our protagonist, and according to the evidence here she does have a compelling reason to seek this revenge, but the one thing they are going to need to do more with is character development for Emily Thorne in order to keep justifying her actions. Despite her being almost the sole focus of the pilot, we don’t know much about Emily as a person. This is mostly because she is an island to herself, taking on a new identity and shedding her old one completely. Emily Thorne is nothing but an assumed name with a plan, not a person.
It would make more sense for us to get to know Emily’s real persona, Amanda Clark, but we only see Amanda in flashbacks and her only contemporary confidante is someone she completely distrusts. Seeing as she spends most of her time as Emily Thorne, this is the character we need to connect to, and it’s going to be a struggle to develop the character of a person that doesn’t actually exist, and that doesn’t seem to have much interest in existing other than carrying out her schemes. VanCamp’s presence does much to alleviate these concerns, as she’s always been good at wringing sympathy from difficult characters; whenever she’s playing Amanda’s harder side, though, it feels strained and unnatural. These are easy kinks to work out, and something I’ll be looking for in future episodes.
Although I was fine with the serious tone of the pilot, Revenge does seem to be in desperate need of a joke or two. The tone works for the pilot, which has to set up a whole slate of Serious Business to establish Emily’s mission, her backstory, and her vengeance-of-the-week. Eventually all of this seriousness is going to feel like an anchor on the show’s momentum, so a moment of levity or two an episode would be nice.
Still, even with its serious nature I enjoyed the tone of the pilot and hint of promise it has to deliver a good season-long arc of vengeance. Granted, it’s almost impossible to see how it could possibly sustain a second season, but a satisfying, undemanding one-season mystery is just fine with me.
Todd: If you’re already intrigued by the notion behind Revenge—the idea of a kinda-dark, super-soapy take on the title that always seems to be one or two steps short of throwing its head to the sky and baying, “REVENGGGGGGGE!”—then you’ll probably like the show itself. It’s rare that a new series is as “what you see is what you get as this one,” and though the audience for Revenge probably isn’t very large, that audience is going to be well-served by what’s on screen. This is a show full of utterly ridiculous plotting, as well as goofy cool moments, like a guy collapsing to the floor after eating poisoned soup.
If Revenge catches on, it’ll be because the show boasts a hefty dose of “They had it comin’.” Everybody who’s got more money than you is fair game on a show like this, and the series is rather gleeful about putting the subtext about clearing out the multibillionaires who got off with a slap on the wrist after the economic crash of 2008 right up on top. Emily’s mission is supposed to stand in for our hoped-for revenge against those who cleared out 401Ks and created the real estate bubble mostly to eventually pop it. It’s pure wish fulfillment, and it’s well-played by VanCamp and Stowe, who make a compelling pair at the center of the show. There’s nothing more here than pure junk food, but if it’s the kind of junk food you like, you’ll be chowing down.