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Review: 'Revenge' Promises Soapy Escapism, But Does Emily VanCamp's Show Deliver?

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 20th 2011 3:00PM
Here's the analogy I'd use to describe 'Revenge' (10PM ET Wednesday, ABC):

Imagine choosing to indulge in a calorie-laden dessert. You haven't had one in a while, but you decide to treat yourself, because sometimes we just want things that are delightful at the time, even if we know they aren't good for us and may make us feel guilty later.

But imagine that the waiter brings that hunk of chocolate or black forest cake to your table and ... it's just not that good. You're fully ready for to indulge your less noble instincts, but the whole thing is just sort of tasteless and bland.

Do you eat it anyway? Maybe. Or, more likely, you just take a bite or two and push the thing away, conserving those guilty-pleasure impulses for something more deserving of them.

'Revenge' is that cardboard cake.

It seems like it could be a fun, if cheesy, soap opera about skulduggery and backstabbing in high society. But 'Revenge' makes the fatal mistakes of wanting to be taken seriously and yet not making its characters worthy of any kind of serious consideration.

This drama could have gone the other way -- it could have been an arch whirlwind of campy intrigue with occasional serious moments -- but alas, 'Revenge' doesn't go for that option either. As least fall's other convoluted female-led thriller that begins with an 'R' -- 'Ringer' -- airs on the CW, where our expectations are generally lower. 'Revenge' seems like it got lost on the way to the CW, or ABC Family, or some network that requires glossy, predictable soaps that don't ask much of the viewer except a high tolerance for colorless dialogue, uncomplicated plots and transparent motivations.

And what a shame all that is, because Emily VanCamp is capable of so much more than 'Revenge' gives her to do. VanCamp (who has appeared on 'Brothers and Sisters' but will always be Amy from 'Everwood' to me) is a terrific actress, and she's capable of shading her performance with elements of vulnerability, doubt and resolve, all of which made the first two episodes of this soap almost worth watching.

Almost. Well, not quite. But VanCamp does her level best to make her character, recent Hamptons arrival Emily Thorne, into a real person. The trouble is, the show doesn't help her much on that front. The premise of the show is that Emily has moved back to her childhood home to right colossal wrongs that were done to her and her family, and for the whole thing to work, we have to be interested in Emily and buy into the righteousness of her cause.

But in its first two hours, 'Revenge' is ploddingly focused on showing Emily take out two of her enemies, which she does with almost comical ease. If we're going to watch Emily take out a one-dimensional villain every week, if we don't actually care that much about her quest to do so, and if her doing so is really easy, what's the point? We're certainly not getting an incisive character study in return for putting up with all the expected story beats about townies-vs.-rich people and shenanigans among the wealthy.

Given that 'Revenge' doesn't get the big stuff right, it's no surprise that the small details are off too. Madeleine Stowe's performance as Victoria, a Hamptons' society queen, is too stiff and mannered, the rest of the supporting characters come off as mere placeholders, and the constant exposition is not exactly slipped in gracefully. At one point, Emily watches online footage from a trial related to her family's downfall -- and at key moments, the clip helpfully cuts between the defendant and a man who's testifying, as if the trial itself had been filmed like a soap opera.

There's a slow-burn element to 'Revenge': Both the audience and Victoria learn bits and pieces about Emily, who appears to have the wealth and determination to take down all her enemies. But those things relate to the mechanics of her quest, not to Emily herself, who was still mostly a cipher two hours into the show.

This drama appears to recognize at times that the most interesting part of the quest for vengeance is its corrosive effects on the person seeking revenge. Pursuing that direction would be an interesting way to go, but so many other things on this show need work that it's hard to say whether it's possible for 'Revenge' to be transformed into the addictive and/or morally complicated soap I wish it was.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Sounds like you are a jealous wannabe actor. This show is the BEST show on TV right now, and everyone I know agrees. I can't even get up for a break because I'm glued to my seat. It lets us all live out the fantasy of getting revenge on every evil person who hurt us. It's a great show!

October 20 2011 at 7:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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