Imagine "The Count of Monte Cristo", only it's the daughter of a wrongly-imprisoned (and murdered) man moving vast sums of money to exact revenge on the highbrow untouchables who set him up. Armed with self-created prestige and bottomless wealth, instead it's her who slips into their social circles and, with the help of a loyal friend and while avoiding her feelings for a long-lost love, moves closer to her target by digging deeper in their twisted, decadent little world, tearing down those who aided her father's imprisonment in the process. That's the gist of ABC's twisty, overstated new series, Revenge, about what calculated vengeance looks like through the eyes of a scorned individual fueled by resolve, cunning, and endless resources. Here's the surprise, though: while there's no denying its indulgent prime-time soap opera angle, or the frequent swiss-cheese nature of its brisk plotting, there's something unexpectedly addictive about its relative moral grayness and upper-crust debauchery -- and, dare I say it, occasional pop-culture meditation on obsession's consuming nature.
The one clouded by vengeance is Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) ... also known as Amanda Clarke, the daughter of a man convicted of terrorist acts that, unbeknownst to most, he didn't commit. Through the journals her father wrote in jail, Emily learns about the plot set in motion by the Grayson family, a powerful Hamptons-based socialite force, to frame him for the activities that would've destroyed their empire. Those journals aren't the only thing she received: nearly-limitless amounts of her father's money, as well as a dutifully sworn ally named Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann), also came into her possession. Emily views this all as a "roadmap to revenge", and the first step she takes is to rent the house right next door to the Graysons' beach-front property for the summer, a home where she spent some of her childhood. Only instead of getting wrapped up in nostalgia, it'd become the base of operations in a plot to take down her penultimate target -- Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), the woman who ultimately turned on her father.
Her plan is of the "long con" variety: first we're shown a lavish engagement party for Emily and Daniel Grayson (Joshua Bowman), the heir to the Grayson throne, then it cuts five months back to the point where Emily moves into the beach house and, through baby steps, gets to "know" the Grayson family under her new persona. The pilot episode where this takes place, directed by Salt's Phillip Noyce, frames Revenge in an indelible tone that'll stick with it; Emily's calculated navigation through the Hamptons socialites is filled with haughty mannerisms and devilish glances as she confidently exacts one facet of her plan, to which the episode reveals exactly how she orchestrated it at the end through cloak-and-dagger espionage and, of course, money well spent. Yet, her time alone -- where she researches, schemes, and decompresses, often with wine in-hand -- reveals a conflicted and emotionally-fatigued girl who doesn't even seem to derive satisfaction from the revenge she's seeking, rendering her as a cold vessel with only a sliver of her old self inside this beautiful, wealthy shell surrounded by false romance and social ties.
Those bits of Amanda Clarke hidden within Emily Thorne play a pivotal role in Revenge, especially when she interacts with those who either know how she is or, at one time, were once important to her. Emily VamCamp wears that duality well, where the partition between innocent Emily Thorne and vindictive, conniving Amanda Clarke constantly blurs; we're never sure when it's the character of Emily or the emotional needs of Amanda peeking through her whirlwind romance with Daniel, while her demeanor around Jack (Nick Wechsler) -- her childhood friend and owner of a local bar -- reveals the Amanda who could've been, now shackled by Emily. The only one who truly gets to interact with "Amanda Clarke" is billionaire socialite Nolan Ross, her loyal "Jacopo". He helps Emily orchestrate her plans to dismantle the Grayson family and their allies, yet he's also a constant voice in her ear trying to convince her otherwise. That's a theme which carries over from "The Count of Monte Cristo": our heroine has all the means to create a new and satisfying life for herself, perhaps with a familiar face from her past that'd appreciate who she truly is, yet she's rather pour her resources and emotional vestment into tearing down those that wrecked her life.
Once you get to know Victoria Grayson, and her family, you'll understand why Emily continues her pursuit and, while feeling sort of terrible for it, root for the young heroine to keep twisting the knife deeper instead of ride off into the sunset. A big part of Revenge's trashy, succulent addictiveness comes in watching the machinations of these sordid people devour those around them in corruption -- even their children -- and seeing Emily chip away at them, punctuated with force by Henry Czerny as Conrad Grayson and, especially, Madeleine Stowe as Victoria. Watching the gears turn in Victoria's head as she moves her social chess pieces around -- and investigates the identity of Emily Thorne -- creates an unnerving, dramatically indulgent atmosphere around the Grayson Manor, where Stowe's piercing eyes and spiteful smile generate thorough disdain for the character. But it's not the type of ugliness that makes someone want to stop watching; quite the opposite, in fact, as Stowe's deliciously evil poise makes one relish the unbearable stranglehold Victoria clenches over her assistant, her children, and the "puny mortals" within her grasp. It's kind of brilliant how well she can provoke exasperation.
At first, it appears as if each episode of Revenge will uniformly scratch off names from Emily's checklist of evildoers to take out -- not unlike Dexter's weekly pursuits of a flawed antihero eliminating people who deserve it -- punctuated by a token "bowl of soup" moment at the end that pulls the curtain back on how her plans are elaborately acted out. However, show writer/creator Mike Kelley wisely moves away from this obligatory design as the season progresses, which lets the undercurrent of Emily's cloak-and-dagger exploits, the snooty social grandstanding, and the soapy melodrama built around them bolster the show's energy on a more natural level. That's a wise move, too. While it's entertaining at first to watch Emily's plans occur in rapid fashion, revealing her skill and determination, it leaves one contemplating exactly how long the show can keep going before the plausibility of her hidden identity weakens, as well as that of her endless bank account. Along with a clearer eye for Emily's overarching design for vengeance, the focus falls more on the encroaching dangers of the social circle: how Daniel's Harvard roommate, Tyler, stays in the Grayson fold; how Emily's complex romance with Daniel clashes with her gravity towards Jack; and how the ugliness of the Graysons contorts their children.
Revenge remains, all points considered, fairly cleverly written across the season in terms of how complicated Emily's plotting gets and how deep the Grayson family conspiracy goes, sustaining that hooked compulsion to delve deeper into both mysteries. While each episode navigates swiftly through compounding twists-'n-turns, the characters stay consistent within the threshold of their personas, never breaking the immersion in terms of how they react to dramatic shifts. But, the scripting isn't without a few maddening contrivances occurring around them, leaving a few clear plot holes; this is the type of show where characters conveniently walk in on shocking kisses that change relationships, where portable cameras are placed by happenstance where they photograph important events, or where bodyguards magically disappear in moments where they're crucial. Money also becomes a big, big factor in that, almost to a point where it should be credited as one of the show's pivotal characters; if there's a problem to fix, hell, throw a ridiculously expensive solution at it, such as buying a building purely for the intention of wiring it with cameras or obtaining tons of stocks to screw over a business. None of this takes away from the overarching thrust of suspense built around Emily's machinations, but it raises eyebrows over hiccups in practicality.
The thing that makes Revenge so engrossing is that you're really not sure what's going to come out of the woodwork of the Hamptons next, whether it's a devious scheme from Victoria, some revelation about the Graysons' conspiracy, or another surprise about Emily's past -- such as where her new name comes from, or where she received her training. Even the assumptions built about the pilot, and where the season will end, eventually turn on their heads: the season's rhythm sets itself up as if the engagement party will become the grand finale, yet plenty of additional chaos emerges once that soirée comes to a close about two-thirds through the season, and once the secrets emerge about what was going on under the surface. Constantly, the writers leave one wondering when Emily's desire for revenge will be satisfied, when the Grayson family's integrity will appear sufficiently dismantled enough for her to abandon her pursuits and call it a day. To be frank, any number of points near the end of Revenge's first season could've fit the bill, compounded within a gut-churning cliffhanger in the very last moments. But it doesn't happen, and we've got a second season coming where it appears as if Emily will have to elevate her vindictive game a level higher. Who knows when her time will finally come to truly shout into the storm.
All twenty-two (22) episodes arrive in this Revenge: The Complete First Season DVD presentation from Disney/ABC Studios, packaged in a clear five-disc case. Snazzy artwork of Emily VanCamp in a black, thorny dress adorn both the cover artwork and the embossed slipcover, while artwork on the inside of the case presents the whole cast in a ritzy promotional photo. Underneath that photograph lists the episodes and their corresponding discs, which are shiny red-topped designs featuring the cast. The presentation reminds me a lot of the Legend of the Seeker set from Buena Vista, which is a good thing.
Video and Audio:
It's unclear exactly what the rhyme or reason is behind which television series receive the Blu-ray treatment from Buena Vista/ABC Studios and which don't, but unfortunately Revenge falls into the latter category. However, that usually means the standard-definition version will be of fairly high quality in order to ease the disappointment, and this series of anamorphic, 1.78:1-framed transfers rise to that task. It's mostly a dark show, really: lots of dim interior shots around the Grayson mansion and Emily's house create rich skin tones and hazy shadows, which the disc presents well enough -- a bit noisy with reddish tones, but suitable. Lighter sequences, especially exterior shots, fall much more into focus with sharp details and blasts of robust color, notably around Nolan's window-laden house and out on the deck of Emily's house. You'll have to stomach a few scenes with jagged lines during a vertical pan, as well as a little shimmering, but this mostly gets the broadcast look down for Revenge.
5-channel Dolby Digital tracks adorn each of the episodes, and they're just as forceful and driven with personality as the visual transfers. Sound effects are minimal here, as the most aggressive expressions of sound activity are guns fired at a range, some hand-to-hand sparring, liquor glasses tapping and the chatter of a dockside bar. These elements occasionally slip to the rear channels, but most of 'em stay front and center. The big driver here is, naturally, the robust dialogue that intermingles with the energetic and suspenseful score, which comes across with tons of personality and accuracy; Madeleine Stowe's fluctuating intensity and the soft alto tone of Emily VanCamp's voice rides right along the center of the track,, while the bass-driven vocals of the male members of the cat travel to the lower-channel where necessary, embracing all their intensity. Everything sounds rather good here, if a bit strained and hollow in spots. English, French, and Spanish subtitles accompany the main feature.
The Pilot Commentary with Mike Kelley and Emily VamCamp is a casual, unpretentious track recorded late in the season, and the pair use that fact to reveal a few interesting details about the production: the demands of chilly and rainy weather on the cast, the motifs Phillip Noyce introduces through his direction that remain, and details about the engagement party and how Kelley wrote certain plot points that meshed well with the details (such as Charlotte's drug problem). They're very conversational and easy to listen to, and they have plenty of fun pointing out little details in the production.
While the package is a little light in terms of the number of supplements, the material will be a pleasing exploration of elements for fans of the show one they reach Disc Five, led by two additional featurettes that reveal further points about the production. Roadmap to Revenge (13:36, 16x9) covers the roots the show shares to "The Count of Monte Cristo", while discussing the pilot and the thumbprint Phillip Noyce placed on it. It takes an intelligent glimpse at the glitz and glamour of The Hamptons, as well as the themes and weight of revenge as a plot motivator. The other featurette, At Home in The Hamptons (8:19, 16x9), takes a tour of the stage with Ashley Madekwe that reveals some of the magic that occurs in creating the show's beachside environment. The raw set with blue-screens intact, alongside revealing special effects shots, show how much of what's going on behind Emily's should is digitally composed and what's been crafted by-hand.
Rounding out those special features are a series fairly bland Bloopers (2:55, 16x9), alongside a not-so-interesting faux interview entitled Nolan Ross Exposed (3:04, 16x9) and some Music Videos. Finally, every disc of Revenge arrives with a slate of Deleted Scenes.
Revenge isn't shy about what it is, nor should it be. It's a cleverly-written, put-together suspense series hinged on the moral and personal complexity of devoting one's life to vengeance, one that's more opera than soap and, to be frank, addictive while it's being baldfaced indulgent. Wealth, cunning, and the manipulation of social grandstanding are
Amanda Clarke Emily Thorne's weapons against the Grayson family and its all-powerful matriarch, Victoria; sometimes she advances, other times she's pushed back, but it's always a whirlwind experience watching where the week's chaos will eventually land. You'll have to grit your teeth at some oversights in logic and easy "throw money at it" plot resolutions, but that's a worthy admission price to experience this "Count of Monte Cristo"-esque rollercoaster of betrayal, scheming, and moral grayness. It's a guilty pleasure, sure, but it's a Highly Recommended one that might just surprise you with how skillfully its convoluted thrills and shifting characterizations can absorb your attention.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site