Tuesday, June 5, 2012

TV’s Revenge: Trashy But Zeitgeist Phenomenon

The cast of Revenge, on ABC

Note: The following contains SPOILERS

It’s a telling thing that although the American public TV networks are ostensibly devoted to appealing to their audiences, they rarely reflect back the viewers' realities. And that’s never more apparent than in terms of economic facts and figures. It’s the rare TV show that is actually about working-class blue-collar Americans, though significant ones from The Honeymooners through All in the Family to Roseanne did endeavour to portray that way of life. Mostly though, especially in popular sitcoms, like Seinfeld, Friends and even How I Met Your Mother, making a living and worrying about paying the bills isn’t on the agenda; in fact, the lavish apartments and spacious rooms the folks on the above TV shows live in were and are laughably removed from what New Yorkers actually put up with. (I know people who have to live in Hoboken, New Jersey, even though they work in New York City, because they can’t afford to shell out thousands of dollars for a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Big Apple.) But even in escapist, adverting-heavy network television, the gloomy headlines of foreclosures, unemployment and debt have, increasingly, been creeping into the plotlines and premises of the shows.

The 2009 quickly-cancelled Kelsey Grammer series Hank was centred around a boorish Wall Street executive who loses his job and has to move back to his hometown to re-connect with his family and the small town values he left behind. The characters on CBS’s The Good Wife are uniformly well off, but the law firm at the centre of the action suffered some economic difficulties last season and had to lay off staff so as not to go under. And on the finale of the second season of ABC’s Happy Endings, the series’ arguably most successful character, Brad (Damon Wayans Jr.) was fired. (It’ll be interesting to see how much the series’ third season will delve into Brad’s dire situation, the first time he’s been unemployed since he finished university.) Even Penny’s (Kaley Cuoco) job as a waitress on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory has always carried with it the awareness that she barely makes enough money to scrape by. (The apartment complex the main science nerds of that show live in, with its perpetually out of order elevators, also looks authentic.) But of all the shows currently on TV, it’s the ABC drama Revenge which may be the most plugged into what’s actually coming down in the United States, even though at heart it’s pulpy, trashy and more than a little soapy.

Emily VanCamp
The show’s title says it all. When her father David Clarke (James Tupper) is convicted of a heinous act of domestic terrorism and sent to prison where he later dies, his daughter, Amanda (Emily VanCamp), initially believes – as does everyone else – that he was guilty of the crimes with which he was charged. But when she’s released from juvenile dentition at age eighteen, she is quickly informed by Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann), a young friend of her father’s, that David was in fact the victim of a frame-up up by his employer Conrad Grayson (Henry Czerny), and his wife Victoria (Madeleine Stowe), who had been romantically involved with David but nevertheless abandoned him when he needed her most. Together, the Grayons, along with their friends and cronies, made sure that David Clarke took the fall for their criminal actions. That was a decade ago and now, posing as Emily Thorne (the identity of a fellow juvie inmate who now calls herself Amanda Clarke, in a swap of names), the real Amanda is a self-made (with Nolan’s help) millionaire. She then sets out to get her revenge on the Graysons and their pals, with the aid of the best spyware and technology that money can buy.

That’s a simple enough plot, and at first Revenge was content to just have Amanda take down a different villain each week, from David’s secretary who betrayed her boss to the psychologist who left the young Amanda to rot in the detention centre, but soon Revenge’s real (political) agenda came to the fore. Oh, it was still preoccupied with Emily/Amanda’s plotting to usurp the Graysons, not least by becoming affianced to their son Daniel (Josh Bowman), but the series was really, at heart, about the revenge of the 99% against the privileged wealthy and decidedly evil 1% who actually run the show in the US. (I’m still surprised that Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly haven’t yet discovered and denounced this socialist show infiltrating the homes of Middle America.)

Set in the gorgeous, tony and expensive Hamptons – all the more to show how the rich and famous really live – Revenge carefully pits Amanda (who, after all, as David’s daughter was herself initially part of that well-off world) against the rich and powerful Graysons. Her only ally, besides a mysterious Japanese mentor (one of the show’s sillier, and unnecessary subplots, because it is more suited to Alias than this putatively realistic drama), is Nolan. He’s a Mark Zuckerberg-like genius who also functions as her conscience, but one whom she usually ignores, to his detriment and safety. Also caught in the crossfire are the Porters, Jack (Nick Wechsler) and Declan (Connor Paolo), two decent but poor brothers who run a local tavern. Jack was in love with Amanda when they were both kids, though he doesn’t know she has returned since he believes she’s someone else. He also inherited her dog, Sammy, when she was sent away. But since Amanda's engaged to Daniel Grayson, he doesn’t act on his attraction to her and eventually falls for the fake Amanda, when she shows up in town, partially because of his fond and happy memories of 'her' when they were kids. Consequently, for most of the season, nothing happens between Jack and Emily, though it’s also made clear, primarily by Nolan, that Amanda/Emily ought to be with the upright Jack instead of the weak-willed Daniel, whom she may or may not actually love.

Henry Czerny and Madeleine Stowe
Admittedly, series creator Mike Kelley, who’s patterned the show after Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, albeit from the distaff point of view, is playing to his viewing audience’s prejudices (mine included) regarding their country’s rich classes. And with talented actors like Czerny (The Boys of St. Vincent) and Stowe (12 Monkeys) aboard, the Graysons are nothing if not well-etched, compelling characters. But if '80s shows like the Reaganesque Dallas made you want to be one of the rich and haughty (Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing was an anti-hero of sorts), the way the Graysons are portrayed – adulterous, conniving, deceitful etc. – is nothing if not off-putting. You’re not meant for a second to care about them or want to be like them. (The Dallas remake premieres soon; it'll be interesting to see how J.R. is depicted this time around.)

(That becomes problematic in the season finale – Revenge has earned high-enough ratings to win the coveted Sunday time slot vacated by Desperate Housewives for next season – when Victoria is (apparently) killed when her plane explodes, as she heads off to Washington to testify against her estranged husband, Conrad, and expose the whole plot to frame David Clarke. Somehow we’re supposed to care that her daughter Charlotte (Christa B. Allan) – who seemed to be a decent sort, but revealed that she's just like her manipulative vindictive mother – is distraught at the news and tries to commit suicide. It’s not clear if she succeeds. But I didn’t give a damn about either of their fates.)

And it’s likely indicative of my skewed view and feelings towards today’s rich – whom I don’t much like – that I can nevertheless also embrace the kindly, benign upper classes in Downton Abbey, who treat everyone, of all classes, alike and almost always do what’s right and moral. But maybe that’s because though that show is British, it reminds me that the wealthy used to give back more to society than they generally do now. Interestingly enough though the Graysons inhabit a lily white, Christian world, the two significant African-American characters on the show, played by Merrin Dungey and Courtney B. Vance, are high-powered lawyers hired to help the Graysons out of their scrapes, emotional and criminal. There are no Obama-like heroes here. The one foreigner, on the show, besides Emily's Japanese mentor, Ashley Davenport (Ashley Madekwe), is an English girl from the wrong side of the tracks who'll do almost anything to worm her way into the Graysons' good graces. But she's only one of many social climbers, including Victoria, who was not always wealthy, littering the landscape of Revenge. One redeeming benefit of all the characters is that don't pretend to be what they're not, except, ironically enough Emily, or act unaware of how they're perceived by the outside world. Conrad even acknowledges the venegeful feelings the public has towards the 1%, in the midst of Daniel's trial for the murder of his best friend Tyler Barrol (Ashton Holmes), a plotline that's less compelling than it sounds. From the presiding judge's stern warning that the Grayson's wealth won't buy justice to the press baying for Daniel's blood, it's clear that the undercurrent of palpable anger and disgust towards the rich evoked in Revenge echoes what real life Americans are feeling. You can even see something of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who's increasingly being perceived as a rich white guy out of touch with the concerns of the ordinary workingman, in the portaits of the businessmen surrounding Conrad and Victoria

But the most interesting aspect of the show, and one of the reasons I stuck with it for 23 episodes, is the approach it takes to Amanda’s pathology. Nolan frequently calls her a sociopath and truth to tell, she basically is. You don’t actually get off seeing Amanda best the bad guys in Revenge, even though they richly deserve whatever happens to them. That's because the show is honest enough to dispute the expression that 'revenge is a dish best served cold;' here vengeance doesn’t really solve anything or make Amanda feel better. In fact she has to keep pursuing that path as she finds out more and more things she didn’t know about her father’s life and death, and learns new details about more and more people who screwed him. That’s pretty complex for a show that on many levels still panders to its fan base – the dialogue is especially over-the-top – and allows me to forgive some of its ludicrous plotting (the last revelation about Amanda’s mother, presumed deceased, brings the show into cloud-cuckoo-land Lost terrain.) and very weak acting (Bowman is wan to the point of bloodlessness; VanCamp hits the same poor me, angry note throughout; though Mann’s Nolan is a cheerfully engaging character.) At least Revenge isn’t as smarmy and obvious as HBO’s House of Lies, with Don Cheadle smirking as he talks to the camera about all the business deals he’s cinched that line his pockets and screw the poor ordinary schlubs at the various companies he’s brought into to consult for. And then there’s the poor vs. rich subtext. I can’t tell if Kelley, whose credits include the 60s set Swingtown and scripts for The O.C. and Providence, believes what he’s pushing here: is his depiction of the obscenely wealthy fuelled by righteous anger, or has he just latched onto a subject and point of view that works on TV in America, circa 2012? I don’t know, but whatever his motives in crafting this show, he’s lucked out. Junky as it often is, a guilty pleasure at best, Revenge may just be the most relevant show currently on the air even if that’s more a circumstance of accident than intent.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute, and is currently teaching a course on American cinema of the 70s.

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