Spoilers abound, so beware.
22 episodes, ABC (September 2011 - May 2012)
It's something rare whenever a series arrives with an instant awareness of exactly the type of show it wants to be. Even rarer is when that 'type' is so schizophrenic, pulling from radically different genres at a time, but remaining consistently true to the characters and the tone that the writers are reaching for. I'm not somebody who gets all crazy over Revenge, since there were naturally growing pains along the way during its freshman season, but it was by far the network surprise of the year -- a deftly intricate and grandiose soap opera with dynamic themes and characters, which always fell on the right side of camp to truly work.
Of all the pleasures that Revenge brought, the easiest and most recurring was that hilarious go-to plot device in which characters, typically at war, get together at a hoity-toity gala-function-ball-whatever and exchange pleasantries, all the while lacing their dialogue with underhand comments and bitchy remarks, while simultaneously wearing those steely, pearly-white smiles. It may be straining in front of a wall of hatred, but damn if it helps keep up appearances. The queen of this remains Victoria Grayson, played by an actress who a year ago was essentially a 'whatever happened to?' question come to life, who quickly became the most engaging, ambiguous and cold-hearted primetime villainess since Amanda Woodward.
One of the strongest elements of Revenge was that ambiguity, both in Victoria's sometimes brutal determination to protect her family at all costs, as well as in her woman-on-a-mission doppelganger Emily Thorne, aka scorned badass Amanda Clarke. It was the show's refusal to cave into stock genre traditions that made both these characters so compelling. Victoria was so ruthless in her intuition that you could every once in a while excuse some of her more questionable behavior, while sometimes Emily's quest for vengeance tipped over into plain ugly territory -- in which the punishment didn't seem to match up with the crime. Neither are entirely supportable, but the commanding presence of Madeleine Stowe and the revelatory Emily VanCamp made them incredible co-leads.
To further what I wrote up top, I also loved the show's ability to bend through various genres with considerable ease. As well as the weighty issues of what exactly is considered right or wrong, or the punishing realization that you do, inevitably, become your parents, Revenge is never afraid to become batshit insane and soapy at the drop of a hat. Campiness played straight, for me, works so much better than something overtly ridiculous like the Ugly Betty's or the Desperate Housewives' of recent years, and I loved the wacky twists involving Kill Bill senseis and stripper alter-egos, crazy people off their meds and exploding planes, and elaborate organizations of secret evil and ridiculous wigs. The fact that Revenge so casually explored the insanity before pulling back and going for the humanity, sometimes within the very same scene, is worthy of considerable acclaim, since it never felt contrived or silly.
The show bounced between several different arcs over the season, from the flash-forward murder that opened the year, through the trial stretch, before settling in the pursuit of James Morrison's white-haired Initiative dude -- all of which were pretty consistent in their entertainment, safe for a couple of dips along the way. But while the elaborate intricacies of the plot were impressive, it created the one major issue that prevents me from entirely adoring the show: most of the cast blow. For much of the season, characters were essentially written like players on a chessboard, moving from one story to the next. And while that worked from a narrative angle, it majorly impacted the characters themselves. Outside of Gabriel Mann's hilarious Nolan (somebody who's stepped straight out from a Bret Easton Ellis novel with his ascots and sparkly blazers and pansexual leanings) and his adorable partnership with Emily, the cast are sort of a drag. Conrad eventually stepped up to the plate and became an amusingly arch antagonist, and I continue to like Charlotte when she isn't saddled with teen love affair hooey, but Jack is 'blah', Daniel is a tree stump, Declan is Townie 101 tedium, and Ashley is played by the most vacant, sleepy and monotone actress that I've ever seen consistently employed on network television. Granted, it is hard to keep up a frenetic, soapy pace while simultaneously crafting characters that you actually enjoy watching, but it's literally the one thing preventing Revenge from becoming masterful. Cut the dead wood, build up the personalities of those that are important, and total success will beckon.
Revenge isn't perfect at this point, but it's already managed to create its own compelling universe of betrayals and hidden agendas and ridiculous trashiness -- held together by two crazily badass women who have a lot more in common than they think. All that's left to say is that she better have gotten off that plane! B+
Favorite Episode Typically for a soap, episodes tend to blur together -- but I remember adoring Infamy (1.12), with Emily and Nolan finally settling the sniping and working together to bring down (or, you know, burn down) Roger Bart's skeezy novelist. I also loved the Cyrano de Bergarac interview with Fauxmanda, it being another layer of awesome in a show all about false identities and scheming.