"Where are you, revenge? Did I leave you in the ocean somewhere?" Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) ponders her options in a new ABC drama.

"Revenge" is a dish that serves itself in bits and pieces

ABC\'s solemn soap spins a tale of vengeance in the Hamptons, doling out satisfactions bit by bit

Matt Zoller Seitz
September 22, 2011 12:22AM (UTC)

"For the truly wronged, real satisfaction can only be found in one of two places: absolute forgiveness or mortal vindication. This is not a story about forgiveness."

So says Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp), the heroine and narrator of "Revenge," a dark prime-time soap set in the Hamptons (Wednesdays 10 p.m./9 Central).  Tonight's pilot starts with a flashforward to a party celebrating Emily's engagement to a young man named Daniel Grayson (Josh Bowman), son of one of the Hamptons' most prominent couples, Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe) and Conrad Grayson (Henry Czerny). Emily is still somewhat new in town; hers was a meteoric (and for some Hamptons residents, troubling) rise. By the end of the flashforward, someone turns up dead; I won't reveal who, but I will note that Emily's reaction to the tragedy doesn't sync up with her cat-that-ate-the-canary expressions during the party -- a nifty bit of misdirection by the show's creator and head writer Mike Kelley ("Swingtown"). 


Emily's right to be aggrieved. The premiere reveals the reasons for her mission of vengeance, and they're positively Dickensian. (If you don't want even vague plot details spoiled, you should skip this paragraph.) As a child, her beloved father (James Tupper) was framed for murder in a conspiracy that has deep roots in Hamptons society. When Emily arrives in the community with a new identity and a metric ton of disposable income, everyone overcomes their legitimate suspicions of her and welcomes her -- and the plotting and counterplotting begins.

Emily's insistent voice-over narration and the episode's dialogue are filled with black pearls of wisdom (and more than a few clichés). The show seems to want to be a highly quotable work of cynical pop, a Richie Rich comics version of "The Great Gatbsy" serving up gorgeous real estate, good-looking people, dark secrets and the sorts of aphorisms found in "The Godfather" or "The Prince." ("Don't let anyone see your weakness," says Victoria. "It's the first thing they'll use against you.") The working class is also represented via the nice-guy townies Jack (Nick Wechsler) and Declan (Connor Paolo) whose community is being squeezed dry by the island's bigwigs. (Jack is Emily's former childhood sweetheart; although he doesn't recognize her adult incarnation, his dog remembers her scent.) But the show is mainly interested in these characters as adjuncts to its core cast of decadent rich folk.

"Revenge" might sound enjoyably soapy in the abstract, but its execution is problematic. The pilot's tone is awfully solemn for "Dynasty"-style plot/counterplot action. Expressive super-slow-motion interludes and golden flashbacks to Emily's childhood strain to imbue soap-operatic elements with substance, but for the most part the filmmaking and writing aren't inventive enough to support them. (I expected better from the pilot's director, Philip Noyce, who has made many watchable to great films, including "Dead Calm," "The Quiet American," "Rabbit-Proof Fence" and "Salt.") Aside from Stowe (who's coolly regal and menacing) and costar Gabriel Mann (who plays a droll, wickedly smart tech billionaire named Nolan Ross), the main cast is easy on the eyes but a tad bland. And I'm skeptical of what looks to be the show's narrative strategy of offering a wee bit of vengeance or thwarted vengeance each week en route to the showstopping final act that Emily is slowly setting up; unless the writers have a lot of dazzling cards in their deck that they haven't played yet (which -- let's be fair -- could turn out to be the case) this could soon become silly and tiresome.


Bottom line: I'm not yet convinced that this show has enough authentic life in it to hold my interest week in and week out. The pilot mostly made me want to pop in DVDs of "Veronica Mars," a show that did season-long, community-wide crime stories very effectively, offering rich characterizations and laugh-out-loud jokes in the bargain. But there's just enough promise here that I don't want to write it off. For now "Revenge" is on my "wait and see" list. My final verdict, like Emily's ultimate satisfaction, will have to wait.

Matt Zoller Seitz

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