So far into this year’s fall television season, it seemed that only one show, HBO’s “Enlightened,” took on the drama of the recession with any semblance of adeptness.
While the premise of the show is about a woman’s quest for spiritual renewal, Mike White’s tender thought piece frames it in a relatable, class destabilizing way — the show tries to reconcile our strained economics with our yearning for “enlightening” five-star Zen resorts.
Rather secretly, there has been another recession drama on the air that takes the complete opposite approach — ABC’s “Revenge,” billed as a modern take on the “Count of Monte Cristo,” is a sudsy tale of class warfare set in the palatial summer homes of the Hamptons. The pleasure of watching the show is indeed guilty, but crafty storytelling and a conscience leaven the harsh subject matter.
After her father dies while being imprisoned for a malicious frame job perpetuated by Hampton royal family the Grayson’s, Amanda Clarke (Emily VanCamp) uses the fortune he left behind to assume a new identity.
As Emily Thorne, she buys the beach house next door to the Graysons and slowly begins ruining the lives of their inner circle of friends. And her motivation for revenge is unwavering: She dons costumes, poisons drinks and dates the innocent Grayson son in her pursuit.
The story is aspirational for sure, but also timely: a ruined family enacting vengeance over the wealthy who screwed them? Emily Thorne is occupying primetime in effigy.
Creator Mike Kelley (“Swingtown”) has sketched his hero and villains with equal measure, keeping them human without sacrificing any classic soap opera characterization: cheating husbands, unnaturally resilient coma patients, long-lost sailor love interests and fiendish college roommates are all here and the show relishes in letting their craziness unfurl from beneath their madras shirts and billowy dresses.
But even as they live out their overly twisty lives of extravagant charity fundraisers, cyber sleuthing and gubernatorial takedowns, the sympathetic people beneath these rich monsters comes through: Grayson matriarch Victoria is the icy queen perched on the balcony of her beachside manor, but she’s also an aggrieved wife, lonely and protective mother and haunted by her role in framing Emily’s father.
What sells Victoria’s character is Madeleine Stowe’s performance. She elevates the dramatic energy with just the way she pronounces other character’s names; each is prefaced by a breathy pause like Victoria is drawing upon some deeper energy to speak. It’s a real testament to her fine performance that Stowe can make an otherwise insufferable and ridiculous character tick and have it completely make sense.
But really, none of it would work without Emily VanCamp, who keeps Emily aloof but also knows how to make her believably vulnerable — you can see her struggling with the idea that she might be falling in love with the Grayson’s son Daniel (Joshua Bowman), making her plans for revenge all the more difficult.
A show like this — a soap opera with winningly topical undercurrents and a sense of voice — is still not without its contrivances, like the tech biz zillionaire and social pariah Nolan (Gabriel Mann). He worked with Emily’s father and is helping her complete her plans by throwing cyber geekery and money her way as needed. The character is one long eye roll — hasn’t TV seen enough impish computer nerds?
Still, “Revenge” is immensely watchable. The show is self-aware enough in its melodrama to have fun with it and knows how to maintain the stakes, even if it has to go to the occasionally ridiculous place to raise them. It’s even proven that it can outlive its otherwise limited premise: What happens when Emily finally gets her revenge? With these people, there’s always someone misbehaving.
Printed on Wednesday, November 16, 2011 as: Fall series 'occupies' primetime.