A Reader Suggests – Revenge

This is a new feature where I sample pop culture that has been recommended to me by readers of the blog.

“You really should be watching Revenge, Heather. It’s a great show.”

I smiled and nodded the first time someone said this to me. I consider myself pretty open-minded and willing to try new things; I actually think it is one of my better qualities. I once even read the Satanic Bible after a student in the civil liberties course I was teaching asked me to. But I also know that my plate is pretty full when it comes to television shows and I’m hesitant to jump on to any new shows after the disappointment that was the 2010-11 television season. I generally know what I like and I wasn’t sure that Revenge was it. So the show had some strikes against it. At the bare minimum, I was going to at least make sure it got renewed before I checked it out.

But then people kept recommending it. And what really caught my attention was the sheer diversity of people who were suggesting it. Taking them as a whole and knowing their pop culture preferences, there wasn’t a lot of overlap between their interests, other than Revenge. This show was reaching all sorts of different people.

In retrospect, that shouldn’t have been surprising. Because, really, what is more universal than revenge?

When the show took a long hiatus in March and with the likelihood for renewal high, I decided to take the plunge. I signed up for a week long trail of hulu plus, hoping that I could get through enough episodes to catch up to what was available on demand (the last 5 episodes) before the trial expired, assuming I even liked the show.

I finished them all in 3 days.

Once I started watching, I just couldn’t stop. I was totally engrossed in the story of a young woman (Emily VanCamp) who returns to her affluent childhood community to seek revenge on all the people who destroyed her family. She is not a believer that living well is the best revenge; she wants her pound of flesh. The list of those who have done her wrong, it turns out, is pretty long and includes the “Queen of the Hamptons,” Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), who is no slouch in the scheming department herself.  Based on the first few episodes, I was worried that it was going to be a procedural, “revenge of the week” type show. That was satisfying for a while, but if that was all it was I probably would have lost interest. But then she starts playing the long game and the show takes it to the next level. And as you know from my discussion of Game of Thrones, I am a diabolical plotting enthusiast.

Revenge is a show that in the wrong hands could very easily become camp. While that type of show can be enjoyable, it is difficult to pull off well long term. Instead Revenge plays it seriously. If anything, I would argue that the show actually takes itself too seriously. There aren’t a lot of laughs in the show. This woman is all business, which makes the few moments of comic relief, usually from Nolan (Gabriel Mann), all the more enjoyable and appreciated. He is absolutely my favorite character, but the show is careful to not overuse him.

This is not to imply, however, that because the show plays it straight that there aren’t a lot of soapy elements. Within the first moments of the pilot there appears to be a murder, though the alleged victim and killer are not immediately revealed. Over the course of the first sixteen episodes there is infidelity, assault, secret identities, corporate subterfuge, blackmail, terrorism, cover ups, death, questions of paternity, faked pregnancies, mental instability and a dog that appears to be pretty sprightly for allegedly being seventeen years old (this may be the show’s biggest mystery). Because this is summer at the Hamptons, there are also lots of parties and rich people generally being rich. All this payback is done in very stylish clothing. Hell the show even has a sensei. That’s right – a sensei.

The acting on the show is generally very good, but Stowe is especially fantastic as the icy matriarch of the Grayson family. I imagine that she has a lot of fun with the material she is given. It’s also nice to see Connor Paolo in a role where he is given more to do than in his previous role on Gossip Girl (yes – I watched Gossip Girl. And yes, I know how old I am). VanCamp is basically a revenge machine, seemingly focused only on the total annihilation of those who have wronged her, but she also doesn’t appear to derive any joy from her successful conquests. She actually keeps her emotions pretty close to the vest, so many times the viewer is left to speculate about how she actually feels about many of the people involved in her plot. Does she actually have feelings for some of the people she claims to be using as pawns to further her master plan? There are moments in the show where you also feel some sympathy for some of her targets. Everything is not black and white in this quest for vengeance.

My one major complaint for the show? Not enough people shake their firsts in the air while yelling “revenge!” Actually no one does this, but they should. I think that is the component that could really put this show over the top.

I am curious to see if my enjoyment of the show changes once I am forced to wait a week between episodes rather than mainlining them all in a short amount of time. I’ve found that when you watch a lot of episodes of a show quickly, you tend to get more fully immersed in the world that the show created; this sometimes results in overlooking some of the flaws that you may observe when given more time to contemplate between viewings.

For those of you who have watched the show, but want a quick refresher, The Huffington Post has created a cool interactive roadmap that lays the character relationships all out for you and TV Line has created brief character recaps. Between Revenge and Game of Thrones, there is a lot I need to keep track of in my television programs. I need to start watching some dumber shows. My head is starting to hurt.

Revenge returns tonight at 10 pm EST on ABC. If you have some suggestions for some pop culture that you think I should try, feel free to leave them in the comments.

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