'Revenge' brings depth and deftness to soap format

ABC

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Senior Arts Editor
Published February 7, 2012

If you’ve ever wished that the opportunistic, corrupt socialites who remained financially unharmed by the economic crisis finally had their assets served to them on a silver platter, your modern-day Robin Hood has arrived in a cocktail dress and heels. ABC’s new thriller-drama “Revenge” shatters the idyllic picture of carefree Hamptons living by weaving a complex but controlled web packed with dark twists and surprises.

Revenge


Midseason
Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
ABC


To the gossipy Hamptons inhabitants of “Revenge,” Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp, “Everwood”) is just the pretty, wealthy new girl who has decided to spend her summer on the beach. In actuality, Emily is an antihero on a mission to avenge her father David Clarke (James Tupper, “Grey’s Anatomy”) by taking out the players who framed him for a crime he didn’t commit. Her friendly, warm facade allows her to smoothly ease her way into the lives of the people who haven’t seen her since Child Protective Services took her away and placed her father in jail for treason and laundering money for terrorists. Her father dies in prison but leaves behind a collection of documents, video tapes and photos that prove his innocence and implicate the Hamptons’ residing royal family: Victoria (Madeleine Stowe, “Raines”) and Conrad Grayson (Henry Czerny, “The Tudors”).

Emily, whose real name is Amanda Clarke, uses her father’s evidence to draw a roadmap of revenge. She concocts a wonderfully complex plan to deal out personalized forms of retribution to everyone responsible for her father’s demise, targeting whatever or whomever they value most. Almost every episode follows a similar formula: Emily zeroes in on her victim of the week, and after a series of obstacles, destroys their life. This could easily become tiring, and most soapy dramas suffer from their formulaic arcs, but the writers of “Revenge” know exactly when to throw in a game-changing twist to propel the story forward or focus in on a specific character to spend time on development and depth. This balanced movement makes for strong storytelling and character development, which is why it’s hard to classify “Revenge” as a primetime soap — these characters are fully realized, the stories are carefully plotted, and the twists are shocking but still grounded in a sense of plausibility and connectedness.

While the acting of the supporting cast can sometimes be melodramatic and vapid, the leading ladies of “Revenge” are a main reason that the show is so addicting and exciting. VanCamp plays both sides of Emily so expertly that the character’s moments of earnestness seem completely honest, yet her sudden but fluid transformations into a cold, calculating schemer are just as convincing. Emily starts dating Daniel (Joshua Bowman, “Make It Or Break It”), son of the all-powerful Graysons, and it’s still unclear if he’s only a part of her plan or if she really has fallen in love with him. With the elegant way VanCamp captures Emily’s emotional complexities, it’s nearly impossible to figure out the character’s internalizations. In this case, empty expressions are the product of bold acting choices, not the dead-behind-the-eyes disease that plagues many dramatic television actors.

VanCamp’s talents are matched only by the finesse of Stowe, who has made Victoria Grayson the most dynamic and intriguing character on “Revenge.” Victoria — scornfully called Queen Victoria by those below her on the Hamptons social ladder — is controlling and fierce, a domineering ruler who is poised and confident on the surface. But there’s much more to Victoria than supreme bitchiness — she used to be involved in a passionate love affair with the idealistic, free-spirited David Clarke, the very man she and her husband framed. Small but powerful character moments reveal that Victoria suffers from numbing guilt and regret, but she never lets her weaknesses show, especially around Emily, who has drawn her suspicion since the pilot. And just like VanCamp, Stowe plays her character’s dual nature with deftness and care, sometimes making it easy to sympathize with the character and sometimes making empathy almost impossible.

“Revenge” takes everything that makes a soap opera gripping — the cliffhangers, the complicated relationships, the snappy dialogue — and injects less common attributes of the genre: careful storytelling and subtle character work. There are about 10-too-many aerial shots of the exquisite Grayson manor per episode, and most of Emily’s “insightful” voiceovers are trite, but the show was never trying to be a critically-acclaimed masterpiece — its mission is to entertain and enthrall, and it succeeds in doing so week after week.