Set in the wealthy and glamorous world of upstate New York, Revenge is the new series from the creator of One Tree Hill. The show follows Emily Thorne, a woman intent of exacting revenge on a large, interconnecting network of rich and influential people who framed her father for a crime he didn’t commit. Having lived there as a child, she now returns to the Hamptons under a different name with a plan to take her victims down one by one. At the centre of the conspiracy lies the Grayson family, led by society darling Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), an ice queen of epic proportions.
Early episodes follow quite a unique structure: while Emily winds her way to the Hamptons social scene with the help of Nolan (Gabriel Mann), her confidante and local tech billionaire, each instalment sees her tracking a single victim who contributed to her father’s downfall. Her plan includes elaborate schemes to ruin each targets in different ways. If you were to consider CSI a ‘police procedural show’, then Revenge could certainly be labelled as ‘revenge procedural’. By having a new story each week, viewers dipping into random episodes can have something to latch on to even if they’re not up to speed on the dense soap opera narrative.
“Obviously, The Count of Monte Cristo is a big influence,” star Emily VanCamp told blinkbox in a recent interview. “The show is loosely based on the book and it carries on that theme. [In preparing for the role] I re-read the book and watched all the films and it’s interesting because they’re all told from a male point of view [but now] it’s great to see a young, ass-kicking woman take on the role.”
Like The Count of Monte Cristo, the popularity of Revenge has been partially attributed to its class war dynamics. In a recent Vanity Fair article, it was suggested that in the wake of the 2008 financial disaster, hedge fund managers and corporate bankers became the new hate figures to the poor and huddled masses: “The vast wealth depicted in movie/TV drama today is divorced from manufacturing and an invisible army of laborers doing their part; it’s divorced from anything resembling work. It’s floating and caressing, immortalizing. A long taste of paradise.”
When pressed to comment on the vicarious pleasure Revenge’s audience takes from Emily’s story, VanCamp agreed: “I think so much of television is about hitting the right audience at the right moment and even though we might have been trying to just create a great piece of entertainment, something really resonated with the American people. I think it’s sort of resonating worldwide. That’s why it’s hard to pigeonhole it as just a night time soap.”
Is it possible that Revenge is the first major TV show of the Occupy generation? That seems a little far-fetched, perhaps. If the show had intentions of being political, it would also be guilty of wanting to have its cake and eat it. For as much as the series is about plotting the downfall of the rich and undeserving, the characters sure do attend a lot of glamorous high-society parties. Oh, the parties! There seems to be a charity polo match or extravagant birthday party just about every week. The number of outfits VanCamp and Stowe wear every episode would suggest that under their fine craftsman houses are mazes of cavernous walk-in closets. If there’s one thing TV audiences love more than watching rich people get their comeuppances, it’s watching rich people living it up! Why else would Dallas and Dynasty have been such a big hit in the 80s? Why else would BBC and ITV continually make period dramas about minor aristocrats?
In fact, Madeleine Stowe’s stone-cold matriarch is the closest thing American TV has to Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess, with her icy putdowns and withering looks. For as lofty as we’ve made the show sound in the last paragraph, Revenge is also unashamedly arch. VanCamp says “the campy element is what makes it cool. It’s that element that takes it back to the old soaps. You have to find the humour in these things and that’s why it’s hard to put us into any category because we’re not trying to be anything else but great entertainment and be unique and find the fun in it.” And she’s right: in the end, the thing that’s kept viewers in America glued to the television hasn’t been the politics or the glamour. In the end, Revenge is just a good soap opera. The rest of it is really window dressing designed to take the ‘guilty’ out of ‘guilty pleasure’ viewing. On British television it’s only four episodes into its first season and we wouldn’t be surprised if it went on to become this year’s breakout hit.