A pale update of The Count of Monte Cristo, ABC’s new drama Revenge gears Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale toward the Gossip Girl set. The first episode is full of rich, beautiful socialites, lavish parties, and enough betrayals and secrets to fill a sorority house. In short, Revenge is another primetime tweener soap opera.
The series begins with a murder at an epic, end-of-the-summer Fire-and-Ice-themed engagement party, then flashes back to the beginning of the season. When Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) arrives in the Hamptons, everything is not as it appears. First off, her name isn’t really Emily Thorne, and she isn’t there to soak in the luxurious atmosphere and social scenery. Her name is Amanda Clarke, and she’s there to exact a meticulous, long-gestating retribution against the cadre of wealthy evil-doers who framed her father for financing a terrorist plot, besmirching her father’s good name and ruining her life.
Revenge is populated by airy, exaggerated characters who give gifts of Van Goghs to their darling friends as mere tokens of affection, like party favors, and men in salmon-colored slacks and captains’ hats, despite a purported dislike for all things from the sea. Everyone seems to be sleeping with everyone else, schemes and deceptions abound, and the whole debacle is ruled over by Victoria Grayson (Madeline Stowe), the undisputed queen bee of the Hamptons. Not only does she have the clout to banish rivals from her domain, but also, twice in this episode, she stands at a microphone, before a party she’s hosting, and gives a speech.
If Victoria represents this sensational modern aristocracy, she’s set against a handful of wrong-side-of-the-tracks style folks. They’re the hardworking, year-round residents who hang out at the local dive bar. Chief among them is Jack (Nick Weschler), the dreamy childhood love interest who still holds a torch for our protagonist: indeed, he’s named his boat “Amanda.”
Jack’s yearning and Amanda’s scheming help to establish the series’ melodrama. This is made repeatedly visible through intense bouts of staring into the ocean while cutesy indie-rock jams play, followed by extravagant flashbacks. At one point in the present, Emily/Amanda runs into Jack, who doesn’t recognize her, and Sam, his aging yellow lab, who also happens to be her childhood dog and somehow still alive after all these years. I told you things were going to get messy.
This moment might be enough to make you throw up your hands and walk away, but if it isn’t, the voice-over may do the trick. It reminds you more than once that this isn’t a story of forgiveness, but one of vengeance… in case you’ve forgotten the show’s title. That title seems simple, and the first episode doesn’t suggest its execution will be sophisticated. Important plot points that should be fleshed out are instead glossed over with throwaway lines of dialogue and characters are left undeveloped, sacrificed for cheap momentum.
In other words, Revenge is too much like the herd of similar programs that already exist (many on the CW). The story is silly, but not trashy enough to make it your latest guilty pleasure. And it’s set up a challenge, making a limited storyline stretch over a season or more. Maybe Revenge will find its way. It is possible. After all, the source material isn’t too bad a yarn.