ABC’s soapy new drama Revenge begins with a quote from Confucius: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” That is good advice, Confucius! One for your enemy, one for your other enemy, right? Time-saving.
Oh. Maybe that’s not what he meant.
Revenge takes melodrama very seriously. It is surprising that there’s no straight-up cackling, but maybe next episode. The gist: as an innocent young girl and future sociopath, Amanda vacationed at the Hamptons with her father. There, they had an adorable golden retriever puppy named Sammy. (The dog isn’t a super-important plot point, but Sammy was really cute.) They seemed like a very happy family, and all was well… until the rich family next door, the Graysons—along with some co-conspirators—framed Amanda’s dad for involvement in a terrorist plot.
Some years laters, Amanda (Emily Vancamp) returns to that same house in the Hamptons under the alias Emily Thorne. She knows now that her father was innocent, but he can’t be set free. He died in prison when she was 18. Thanks to her father’s early investment in a tech start-up that’s now worth a bundle, she’s got all the money she needs to fund her mission in life: revenge against the Graysons and everyone else who brought her family down. Just for starters, in the course of the pilot, she exposes an affair, gives a guy a fake heart-attack, gets a secretary who gave false testimony about her dad exiled from the Hamptons, and starts seducing the Grayson son, Daniel. So, she’s pretty busy.
Revenge stories tend to show how all-consuming it is to plot the downfall of other people. This makes total sense to me, because revenge looks like a lot of work. If it’s your main purpose in life, you don’t really have time to hold down a day job or go on a Match date or take a relaxing trip to the country.
Based on what I have seen in television and films, in order to do a really bang-up, life-ruining, soul-stomping revenge job, you need:
- The adrenaline-fueled ferocity of a Wall Street stockbroker
- The sleuthing skills of Veronica Mars
- The acting talent of Tilda Swinton (everyone always says Meryl Streep, and of course she’s transcendent and subtle and cool nose and all that, but have you SEEN I Am Love? See I Am Love, you will spontaneously burst into tears whenever the soundtrack soars or Swinton eats a piece of shrimp and it will feel awesome.)
- The eye for detail of a New Yorker proofreader
- The commitment level of Lance Armstrong
- The martial arts skills of the Karate Kid
- The ever-simmering fury of… I don’t even know who. God in the Book of Job maybe? The kind of being who’s all, STEP OFF JOB YOU DON’T KNOW MY LIFE CAN YOU MAKE TORNADOS?
No wonder real-life people don’t engage in highly intricate revenge schemes very often. (At least to my knowledge. If you or people you know DO engage in highly intricate revenge schemes with frequency, you sound interesting! Tell me about yourself. Do you wear tight sparkly dresses with shoulder pads? Do you have one of those classy home-bars? Do you speak in soliloquies while gazing out the window or holding old photographs? Do you want to hang out after work?)
If revenge is Emily/Amanda’s full-time job, what is everybody else on the show doing with their lives? It’s the Hamptons, so most people are hanging out on their yachts or in houses dominated by white furniture. They also wear a lot of white to show that they can afford dry-cleaning any old time.
But not everyone in Revenge is rich. The Porter family runs a local bar that’s been struggling during the off-season. When the bar is about to be foreclosed by the bank, oldest son Jack decides to sell his boat and give up his dream of volunteering in Haiti to save the business. Not coincidentally, the Porters are the only people on the show who seem to be straight-up good. (You can tell they’re down to earth because they wear plaid and jeans.)
Whether money corrupts or only corrupt people get money is unclear, but either way, these rich people are kind of awful. That description may well apply to Emily, too. Although she and her family were clearly wronged, now she’s a schemer, imposter, and possible murderer—perhaps not so different from the very crooks she’s trying to take down. It’s a relief to have a heroine whose motivations are murky and whose disposition is positively un-sunny. There’s great potential for her to be a complex character as she gets increasingly involved in the lives of the people she hates.
Emily’s nemesis Victoria Grayson, played by the stunning Madeline Stowe, has equal potential. Not only did Victoria frame Emily’s father, she also seems to have been in love with him—making her betrayal all the more terrible. There’s enough emotional suppression between the two women to bankrupt Kleenex. (Vancamp’s muted facial expressions in particular do an excellent job of conveying how much work it takes to disguise her inner monologue, which basically goes revengerevengerevengerevengerevengerevengerevengerevenge.)
It’s too early to predict how Revenge will fare this season, but it’s safe to say it’s got spirit. And I’ll be tuning in next week to see how many more synonyms the show can find for the word “revenge.” I’m betting a lot.