Vengeance: bigger and badder the second time around. ABC Studios has released Revenge: The Complete Second Season, a five-disc, 22-episode collection of the hit ABC melodrama/thriller's sophomore 2012-2013 season. Starring Madeleine Stowe, Emily VanCamp, Gabriel Mann, Henry Czerny, Ashley Madekwe, Nick Wechsler, Josh Bowman, Barry Sloane, Connor Paolo, and Christa B. Allen, Revenge tickled a lot of viewers' fancies with its overripe, overheated take on Dumas' classic, The Count of Monte Cristo, when it debuted in the fall of 2011. Ratings slipped, however, for this second season, with more than a few viewers wondering if the producers and writers had "lost the plot," so to speak, by expanding the original swank, obsessive Revenge universe to make room for more devious characters, more explosive secrets, more convoluted plots, and more out-and-out lies. Perhaps...but it's still one of the more entertaining series on that soon-to-be-extinct dinosaur, network television, and I'm looking forward to season three starting up in two weeks. Quite a few extras this go-around, making these snappy widescreen transfers an easy recommendation for anyone looking for pulpy TV thrills.
A brief overview for the handful of newcomers who may stumble onto this review. Last year, juvie alumnus-turned-fabulously-wealthy-gate-crasher Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) arrived at the Hamptons and effortlessly insinuated herself into that exclusive enclave's creme de la creme: the Grayson family, who live in a spectacular mansion next door to Emily's multi-million dollar, drolly-monikered "little beach cottage." Emily purchased this cottage right out from underneath imperious neighbor Victoria Grayson's (Madeleine Stowe) nose for a reason: as a little girl, Emily used to live there with her father, David Clarke. David Clarke, in turn, used to work for Grayson Global, a multi-billion dollar Wall Street investment firm run by ice-cold manipulator Conrad Grayson (Henry Czerny), Victoria's husband. "Emily," whose real name is Amanda Clarke, won't be inviting David over for a swim on the beach for Father's Day, though; years ago, he was killed in prison, where he was serving a life sentence for terrorism, unjustly convicted of a plot that saw an airliner full of passengers blown out of the sky. How did Amanda Clarke, then, become "Emily Thorne?" Her father left little Amanda an "infinity" box with journals and other clues that not only stated his innocence, but also pointed the finger at those who framed him: the Graysons. Amanda's money also comes from her father, who was wise enough to invest in fey, genius hacker Nolan Ross' (Gabriel Mann) internet start-up--an investment that would eventually reap half a billion dollars and counting for Amanda. Only Nolan (at first) knows "Emily Thorne" is really Amanda; his loyalty and gratitude to David Clarke now impels him to aid Amanda in her mission: destroy all those who railroaded her innocent father into prison...and thus caused his early, tragic death.
To accomplish this pitiless destruction, Amanda must renounce and suppress her own feelings of love and morality--a step made easier, at least at first, considering that her all-too-brief idyllic childhood was transformed into one of notoriety, shame, anger, and then violence, as she was bounced from foster homes to juvie to prison...with a side journey to Japan, where Satoshi Takeda (Hiroyuki Sanada) trained his impulsive, unformed, aggressive ex-con/student into a hyper-efficient killing machine who is as devious and cunning as she is blankly remorseless. Of course, this "shutting off" is a difficult, if not impossible, task for the damaged-but-still-salvageable Amanda, who knew kindness and love from her adored father, as well as from childhood sweetheart, Jack Porter (Nick Wechsler), who doesn't recognize "Emily Thorne" as the grown-up Amanda when she arrives back in the Hamptons. Jack runs a waterfront bar along with his kid brother, Declan (Connor Paolo), that he inherited from his father. As much as Amanda might want to abandon her personal vendetta for love with Jack, she instead chooses to seduce well-meaning rich boy, Daniel Grayson (Josh Bowman), in an effort to get closer to Victoria and Conrad. This move is complicated by the arrival of the "real" Emily Thorne (Margarita Levieva), a fellow juvie graduate who previously aided Amanda in her switcheroo, now posing as "Amanda Clarke"...before promptly snagging Jack for herself. Further permutations and mutations of romantic, financial, and even criminal links between "Emily," the Porters, and the Graysons bubble to the surface during Emily's revenge take-downs, until Emily is faced with an even greater foe than the Graysons or even her own ethical conflicts: "The American Initiative," a shadowy cabal of almost unlimited resources and influence, who appear to be intimately connected with the Graysons...and perhaps with the frame-up job on David Clarke.
I'm not coming new to this second season of Revenge; after seeing the on-air promos back in 2011, I had a feeling that this series might fall along the lines of past nighttime soaps that I once held near and dear when I was a kid, particularly Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest, so I tuned into premiere night, and I've been a steady viewer ever since ("steady viewer" does not, however, translate into "fanatical re-capper who obsesses over every little plot detail and character to the point of ridiculousness"...so don't email if I spell someone's name wrong). That first season garnered solid ratings and even better reviews; however, the online chatter for Revenge's second season, precipitated perhaps, by falling Nielsen numbers, was that the show had lost its way somehow, that too many characters and too many busy-but-undeveloped subplots had diffused the central pull of Amanda's blood feud with the Graysons.
Perhaps...although I enjoyed this second season if for nothing else than this overreaching. Obviously when first watching the increasingly intricate and clever episodes that first season that saw Emily inch closer and closer to knocking off Victoria and Conrad Grayson, one wondered how the series was going to continue. How would the producers keep the central arc going--Emily's vendetta against the Graysons--without her actually winning. Because if she wins, the story's over. At first glance, it's tempting to say that Revenge couldn't sustain the interest of this first driving season because eventually, viewers are going to catch on that there are only so many times the seemingly indestructible Emily can get so close to vanquishing her enemies before someone or something blocks her. It's a constant tease that eventually breeds frustration and then, ennui. Either she scores against the Graysons, or new villains will need to be introduced, to broaden--and inevitably, dilute--her original mission (something the writers apparently already are aware of here; Emily herself states she needs to get back to basics at one point, lamenting getting sidetracked with off-target tangents). Still...it's worth remembering that the granddaddy of all back-stabbing, outrageously plotted melodrama soaps, Dallas, aired for 14 years replaying basically the same three or four plot threads--good guy Bobby versus evil genius J.R.; manipulative devil J.R. versus weakling Cliff; uncontrollable libertine J.R. versus alcoholic wife Sue Ellen, and so on--with plenty of people tuning in. Of course, the mechanics, both financial and artistic, of prime time television are vastly different today, so who knows if Revenge can continue to sustain a loyal audience?
To blame any perceived fuzziness of Revenge's sophomore session on going "bigger" in terms of more characters and more subplots is really beside the point; after all: where was it to go after already being "big" in the sense of campy overripeness (not meant in the pejorative sense at all)? Revenge's canvas, directly inspired by the epic-sized revenge melodrama to end all revenge melodramas, The Count of Monte Cristo, already embraced a sense of opulent overindulgence not just in production values but in the very thematics of its construction. No matter how glossily produced (it's one of the best-looking shows on television), no matter how faux-meaningful in its silly voiceover bumpers, and no matter how seriously (or more appropriately, too seriously) some of the performers take their roles, Revenge, at its core, has always been inflated pulp. Entertaining, yes. Exciting and suspense, at times, sure. Slickly conceived and packaged, always. But pulp, nonetheless. And as such, entirely entitled to go even more overboard in an effort to stimulate the quickly-sated viewer. What was Revenge to do this second time out? Jettison all dramatic tangents it had alluded to, scale back, retool, and go "smaller" in scope? How would that have been perceived? Just like the Bond movies used to do (before they became hilariously self-serious under cramped, wizened Daniel Craig's humorless reign), Revenge needs to keep getting "bigger," or else it will die sooner than it's already fated to do. Interest in this kind of storyline is only going to continue for so long before people zone out from exasperation or boredom, so the producers might as well try and climb higher each time out (recent reports that original creator and showrunner Mike Kelley is gone and that the show will be "getting back to its roots" sound frankly ominous to me).
So...outside the odious implications of its politics (more on that later), I didn't mind at all that Revenge expanded "The Initiative" angle here. Or that a third love interest was given to predator Amanda (it's quite fun to see a confident, aggressive female character unapologetically enjoy sex the same way men have in countless movies and TV programs--as a stress reliever: "I needed someone. You walked through the door...don't let it go to your head."). Or that many new characters were introed to further expand Revenge's vision of a new technology-obsessed world still absolutely ruled by the most ancient of passions: sex, money, power, and love. The more self-inflated, outrageous coincidences and soap opera histrionics here, coupled with the latest fashions and pretty pictures, the better.
All of which helps you forget some of Revenge's missteps this time out. You can quibble about wrong-headed elements held over from the first season, such as the majority of scenes constructed in 2 minutes-or-less time frames to keep the text message-addled kids out there engaged, or those cornball "song montages" at the end of episodes (like something out of a bad McLeod's Daughters marathon), or those stupid f*cking "Free to Be You and Me Meets Rod McKuen" voice over generalities from Amanda patiently explaining, in Hallmark greeting card complexity, what I already know about the show's karmic M.O. (if the episodes do their job, you don't need to literally reiterate what you've already shown the viewer...unless you don't trust them enough to get your messages in the first place). But some new developments muddy the waters. Spoilers Thankfully, Declan, the most useless, superfluous character on the show, was killed off, but not before we had to suffer through quite a bit of screen time with his "boring icks." In fact, someone please ditch the whole blue-collar edge of town in Revenge altogether. It reminds me of what they did in the first season of Dynasty: contrast the rich-but-simple folks in the oil business, like Dale Robertson, with the really super rich a-holes like John Forsythe--it didn't work there, just like it doesn't work here (I don't care about The Stowaway, okay?). And finally, I know it's a small point, but seriously...someone as bright and clever and calculating as Amanda keeps hiding her most prized possession the "infinity" box and most incriminating information on her laptop...in one of the most obvious hiding places in history: under her stairs? How many times is it going to get stolen there?
Solid additions this season, such as Barry Sloane's Bondian Aiden Mathis (a good foil/lover for Amanda), and the expanded role of "The Initiative" as Amanda's more pressing villain, are balanced by miscalculations, like Amanda's foster brother (who's mercifully off within an episode or two), or most disappointingly, the appearance of Amanda's mother, played with shocking indifference by the usually superlative Jennifer Jason Leigh (this whole subplot is wrong from minute one, particularly when we discover she's been married to the "white haired man"--a ridiculously contrived coincidence even for Revenge). I enjoyed seeing the more developed relationship between Amanda and Aiden and their (duplicitous) mentor, Takeda...but then the producers go and show their asses by having Takeda lament the purpose of "The Initiative," ruefully stating "they" do what "they" have "always" done: "create fear, chaos, profit." This message from a show that's positively pornographic in its wallowing in wealth and opulence? Mr. Miyagi may moan about "profit" being synonymous with "fear" and "chaos," but he does so comfortably adorned in a $2,000 sports coat. You can find hypocrisy in this surface juxtaposition of the show's top-of-the-line production values, but even more telling is the unspoken, dirty little secret behind Amanda's stunning success rate as a remorseless agent of destruction: her bottomless bank account. Nothing amuses me more than extremely well-paid Hollywood producers and writers, working for a multi-million dollar company like ABC--which in turned is owned by an even bigger multi-billion dollar conglomerate like
Not to mention the show's subliminal politics. The scurrilous suggestion that Wall Street bankers and not religious fanatics are behind terrorist attacks on America is frankly to be expected from a show that has a character make a point of mentioning "HuffPo" as the "news" source in particular that he wants alerted to his engagement announcement (apparently, nobody caught the irony of having "independent" gubernatorial candidate Conrad Grayson, shamelessly manipulating a tragedy for his own personal gain, paraphrase the President's former right-hand man, Rahm Emanuel: "You don't get to where we are by ignoring opportunity."). Still, anyone savvy to today's entertainment field will expect these inevitable indoctrination "Easter eggs" hidden in plain sight throughout the average night's prime-time programming--particularly over at aggressively liberal ABC/Disney (Walt's cryogenically frozen head is spinning in its chamber). And as such, forewarned and forearmed, you can laugh at their ridiculously obvious attempts to "re-educate" and move on to the show's more universal pleasures, such as the high camp comedy of Stowe and Czerny trading acid-tongued barbs at each other (Stowe's, "Take you pick!" to Czerny's stunned inquiry as to why she slapped him is good, but even better is Czerny's fatuous, sneering, "May she rest in peace," when referring to the not-so-late Stowe). The increase in characters and subplots means there's always something going on, usually quite clever in execution, while enjoying the sight (there's not a wrong angle on her, and she wears clothes like Crawford and Turner and Gardner did: perfectly) and skilled thesping of VanCamp is enough to get you over most any of the bumps that pop up here (she has that certain old time Hollywood allure and calm assuredness that should spell a big career if she can capitalize on Revenge's minor notoriety). The only way season three can screw up these first two seasons' set-up, is to feature less of VanCamp doing what she does best: a ladylike, demure smile, a turn of the head and a vampy grin for an unseen audience, and then zap! Another one bites the dust on her hit list. Keep doing that, plausible or not, and Revenge should last a few more seasons.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.