Removing the Guilt in Guilty Pleasure

'Revenge: the Complete First Season'

by Jose Solis

26 August 2012

Created by Mike Kelley, Revenge is a delicious throwback to nighttime events like Dallas and Dynasty, except that the camp is subverted to the point where it becomes almost Tarantino-esque.
Emily VanCamp as Emily Thorne in Revenge: Season 1 
cover art

Revenge: the Complete First Season

US DVD: 21 Aug 2012

Almost a decade ago, ABC gained attention for “bringing back” the serialized drama with what became two of the most iconic television shows in recent history: Lost and Desperate Housewives. With these two completely different shows, the Disney-owned network reminded audiences of the pleasures found in the cliffhanger, while forcing the ADD generation to keep track of what had happened in previous episodes, in order to know what every new twist and turn meant.

After this boom, the serialized drama seemed to lost some traction, and both networks and cable channels went back to mostly self contained television shows (which perhaps out of fear of audience decline) encourage viewers to start watching any time they can (other than True Blood is there any other show on the air, so devoted to the cliffhanger?) 

Perhaps aware that a compromise had to be reached between love of ratings and unadulterated love of storytelling, during the 2011-2012 season, execs at ABC gave the green light to Revenge, a series that deftly combines extraordinary twists and turns, while giving each episode a certain finality. Created by Mike Kelley, Revenge is a delicious throwback to nighttime events like Dallas and Dynasty, except that the camp is subverted to the point where it becomes almost Tarantino-esque.

Revenge tells us the story of Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp), a wealthy socialite with a mysterious past who buys a house in the Hamptons and becomes entangled in the game of passions and power played by the colorful characters. She begins dating Daniel Grayson (Josh Bowman) a popular bachelor, son of Hamptons royalty Victoria and Conrad Grayson (Madeleine Stowe and Henry Czerny respectively). Soon we learn Emily’s endgame is more than climbing the social ladder: she plans to destroy the Graysons.

Like a countess of Montecristo, the blonde beauty wreaks havoc upon the paradisaical summer spot revealing dirty secrets about other inhabitants, scheming to marry Daniel and infiltrate the influential family, going head to head with the Grayson matriarch… all to avenge her father’s death. A just cause, one might say, but then the show’s real magic is precisely that it makes us wonder about the nature of revenge. Is avenging a cause ever truly worthy?

To spoil more about the main plot would be a disservice to a show that delivered one of the most breathtaking dramatic arcs of any show in the last decade. Episode by episode during its first season, Revenge truly pushed the boundaries of dramatic television. Combining soap opera dialogues with revelations straight out of Kill Bill, the show also remained stylishly self aware and for every time a mistress went flying over a balcony, it found an appropriate balance by seeking out the humanity in these outlandish characters.

Victoria Grayson, for example, could’ve become a one-dimensional villainess if the writers had limited her to delivering venomous one-liners (the show’s quotability is among one of its most valuable strengths). Instead, they allow her character to reveal new layers in each episode. Victoria’s arc is, in a way, diametrically opposed to the main story this season, one escalates in constant crescendo towards the ultimate reveal (one that must have execs at ABC salivating over all the potential new viewers) while the other went from sensationalist into moving.

It helps that Stowe, who doesn’t seem to have aged a single year since 1995, delivers such a fierce, fearless performance. Her smile goes from spine tinglingly creepy to quite touching in a matter of seconds and because of her impenetrable facade, she always keeps us guessing what’s next. Stowe easily became the MVP of the first season and why she wasn’t nominated for an Emmy is undoubtedly one of the greatest injustices committed the narrow-sighted TV academy.

Equally, the show is particularly ambiguous when it comes to Emily. During the first episodes it seems as if VanCamp won’t be able to pull off the nuances demanded of her character. The actress is too plain at times, but she uses her limited range in her favor, allowing her face to project the fears and desires of other characters and viewers. We are always wondering: will she do something “human” or “revengy” (a word coined in the show by Emily’s nerdy/bisexual/preppy/slimy sidekick Nolan played with gusto by the brilliant Gabriel Mann).

Revenge never seems to be trying to say something bigger about society, although it could have tried, what with it dealing with terrorists, adolescent pill poppers and the frightening indifference of the 1% (although it wouldn’t be odd if viewers wondered if rich people are actually using their money to play out Shakespearean dramas instead of, you know, doing something with it that might help the rest of the world). Instead it willfully chooses to take place in a seemingly fantastical land where characters survive being thrown off buildings and where strippers only have hearts of gold if they can steal someone else’s identity. Revenge deals with the intricacy of human passions and how the mystery of what moves us gives us a rush that might propel us towards destructful addiction or unexpected sublimity.

The 5-disc DVD set is a treasure chest of wonders. The episodes look absolutely ravishing and are easy to find, something that comes in quite handy in terms of rewatchability (let’s see how many times you can watch “Guilty” and “Reckoning” before the new season premiere). In terms of extras, all of the discs include at least one bonus material. Most of them consist of deleted scenes, all of which were rightfully axed but are still welcome if only for giving us more to watch.

Disc five contains most of the bonus supplements including a look at the show’s settings (North Carolina fills in for the Hamptons and you will not believe how many CGI effects are used in each episode!), a featurette where cast and crew talk about what drew them to the show and a delicious short feature on the show’s fashion (Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn were influences). Most welcome of all is a teaser entitled “Nolan’s World” in which the mysterious character accidentally reveals more about him than he intended. The set is completed with a hilarious clip of bloopers, which perhaps aren’t that funny but seem refreshing, given how dramatic everything else in the show is.

Revenge is perhaps the best freshman show of the 2011-2012 season and as such it should be requisite viewing for those seeking scripted pleasure in their nightly dose of television. There’s nothing to feel guilty about while enjoying this one.

Revenge: the Complete First Season


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