Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday TV Review: Revenge.

My sister suggested this show to me and I only picked it up in at the beginning of the summer, but my wife and I burned through all of the episodes in a week.

Revenge is the story of Amanda Clark (Emily Van Camp), whose father was framed for a horrible crime by people he trusted. Years later, Amanda has assumed a new identity as Emily Thorn and she returns to the Hamptons to exact her slow, methodical revenge on those who ruined her family.

The plot is straightforward and easy to understand. We, at first, attach to Emily's mission because we feel for the injustice for her. And it is deliciously satisfying as she sneakily takes down the members of the conspiracy one by one using their own vices against them in a kind of moral jujitsu. 

 She is aided by the sometimes androgynous billionaire Nolan (Gabriel Mann), who performs the important function of doing digital magic like hacking into... well, anything for her.

One of the keys to her plan is to ingratiate herself with the Grayson family, the dominant clan of the Hamptons social circle.

 Patriarch Conrad (Henry Czerny) is philandering creep. 

 Daughter Charlotte (Christa B. Allen) is a brat trying to find herself. 

 But it is mother Victoria (Madeleine Stowe) who acts as the real antagonist who threatens to uncover and expose Emily at any time. This is only heightened when Emily seeks to infiltrate the Grayson family by seducing eldest son Daniel (Joshua Bowman).

Daniel tries to be good, crawling out of his father's shadow. But the deeper Emily gets, the more she risks destroying the Graysons, including Daniel. This is made more complicated by the fact that Emily still has feelings for her childhood companion, the working-class and painful honest Jack (Nick Wechsler). But Jack has his heart reserved for Amanda, the person Emily cannot reveal unless she wants her plan to come crashing down. This also leads to the wonderfully painful love triangle that fuels much of the show's melodrama, especially since both men are good-hearted and Emily is destroying torturing both of them by her choices.

This is also an aspect of the show that I like. At first we root for Emily. But the further on we go, we come to realize that she is not a good person. Maybe she's not evil, but she has several chances to give up on her revenge and embrace love and forgiveness. But she does not and pain follows. I love that the very first line of the series is a quote from Confucius: “Those who seek revenge should dig two graves.” By the end of the season I found myself not rooting for Emily's vindication, but for her to abandon this path to destruction, lest she end up with the same fate as the rage-fueled Captain Ahab.

The series also tantalizes the end of each episode with at tease to the next. While this is a standard series trope, it works well enough to keep me coming back for more.

The performances are fairly good. Van Camp is inscrutable with her two-faced smile, but there are episodes where she lets her emotional guard down to great effect. I've always been a fan of Madeline Stowe and she gives her character enough sympathy without ever letting us forget that she is evil. The most uneven performance is that of Mann's Nolan, who sometimes comes off as a cross between Napoleon Dynamite and James Crockett (for those too young for Miami Vice, ignore this last sentence).

But the show is intelligent enough to close its own loopholes. I like that the characters ask questions that I would ask. Emily learns most of her information from her father's journals. Half way through the season, she finds a video of her father where delivers a bombshell. My first question was, “Why didn't he ever put that into the journals?” Sure enough, that was Emily's first question too. And when Emily sends footage from hidden camera in order to cause rifts in the Grayson family, the characters ask the obvious question: who made the video. This may sound like very obvious things, but it is not uncommon for TV shows to leave out these complications. And I also enjoy the fact that these complications have to be dealt with from week to week and are not simply swept under the rug.

The biggest flaw with the show is that one of the main characters towards the end of the first season does a complete 180 in terms of character trajectory. This would be fine there was something significant enough to trigger this change, but the move feels forced. Since this change leads to a domino effect for the rest of the episodes, the end felt a little artificial.

One annoying thing about the show is that it lets its politics fly every once and a while. It goes out of its way to show that the bad politician is a conservative. The show tries to capture the zeitgeist of the Occupy movement with its talk of the 1%. These remarks are totally unnecessary and take me out of the show.

And that is a shame, because it is a very solid story. In fact, it wasn't until the fourth episode that I realized that Revenge is essentially a soap opera. The twists, turns, and story beats mimic the classic mid-afternoon dramas with less intercutting storylines and 10 times the production value. I don't write this as a criticism. What amazes me is that the show has pulled off a very entertaining show that is above the standard soap opera fare.

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