All Pleasure, No Guilt

02.28.12

‘Revenge’: Emily VanCamp, Mike Kelley, Madeleine Stowe, and Gabriel Mann on the ABC Soap

ABC’s hit nighttime soap Revenge is not only winking noir, it’s a retribution fantasy for the 99 percent. Jace Lacob talks to its creator and cast about the show’s popularity.

It’s difficult to escape the narrative lure that ABC’s nighttime soap Revenge—equal parts vengeance fantasy, noir-tinged thriller, and sprawling character-based soap—casts in its wake. The drama (Wednesdays at 10 p.m), inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, has been featured everywhere from the cover of Entertainment Weekly to a sumptuous Oscar-night promo.

Every one of its deliriously unexpected plot twists is voraciously dissected on Twitter by the Revenge faithful, captivated by the show’s premise: a young woman, Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp), returns to the Hamptons to wreak havoc on those who destroyed her family, exacting a bitter, um, revenge that tightens a noose around the necks of the wealthy residents of the Long Island community, even as she finds herself caught in a love triangle between Daniel (Joshua Bowman), the son of femme fatale Victoria (Madeleine Stowe) who destroyed her family’s fragile happiness, and her childhood crush, Jack (Nick Wechsler). Emily—criminal mastermind, computer hacker, cat burglar, and willing arsonist, not to mention a ronin in Giuseppe Zanotti stilettos—recalls Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander as much as she does Dumas’s Edmond Dantès. Forget about the Hamptons, this show is firmly based in Crazy Town, as Emily commits every crime short of murder to achieve her ends.

“She wants them to suffer the way that she has suffered her entire life,” said VanCamp, sitting in a smoke-filled dive bar a few blocks from the ocean, which is standing in as a low-rent meeting place for her character. “That’s the only satisfaction that she can ever get. She’s missing that forgiveness is ultimately the best way out.”

While VanCamp said this, she was wearing a brown wig, sapphire-blue contact lenses, and the sort of low-cut skimpy dress that would have landed Lindsay Lohan in the tabloids back in the day, a disguise pulled from Emily Thorne’s figuratively bottomless bag of tricks. This costume is fairly standard fare for Revenge, which deals easily in vertiginous doubles and assumed identities, among other tropes. An attempted murder is caught on tape from the belly of a whale statuette; two characters are revealed to be unlikely siblings; a down-and-out stripper bludgeons a private investigator to death. It’s heady and out-there stuff, the show’s innate campiness fusing with a dose of actual homoeroticism at times. From the outside, Revenge is a show that should never have succeeded, one with a seemingly ludicrous and close-ended plot, stuck in a dead-end time slot, and with a star who had made her bones in earnest fare like Everwood and Brothers & Sisters. Yet it’s getting roughly 8 million viewers per week, with just the right sort of audience in these ratings-starved times.

And Revenge is pushing deeper into neo-noir territory, even as the show offers weekly homages to Patricia Highsmith, Larsson, Dumas, and Alfred Hitchcock. The show’s creator, Mike Kelley (Swingtown), meanwhile, points toward Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer as a direct influence on the twisted psychosexual relationship between Emily and Amanda Clarke (Margarita Levieva), the unstable woman whose identity she had assumed years before. (“She definitely is an existential companion to Emily,” said Kelley, answering a question about whether Amanda was the unfettered id of Emily’s identity. “She’s the dark half.”) Not your typical influences for a nighttime soap.

“All of those ‘holy shit’ moments that we pack into every episode, they still have to be grounded, and it’s a giant monster that you have to keep feeding,” said creator Mike Kelley.

“A lot of people initially thought, ‘Well, how do you sustain a series that potentially has a very clear closed end?’” said Kelley. “We found that it lives in a lot of different places: [tonight’s] episode is a super noir-esque episode. Agatha Christie is another name we throw around. We’re inspired by a lot of filmmakers, a lot of literary material, and the roots of nighttime soap opera.”

In recent weeks, the show has folded in on itself, fulfilling the promise of the pilot episode, in which Emily’s good boy fiancé, Daniel, is seemingly shot to death on the beach while their engagement party, a fire-and-ice themed affair organized by Daniel’s manipulative mother (Stowe), rages just a few hundred feet away. While some wondered if Kelley had painted the show into a corner by killing off Daniel, the plot veered sharply, instead setting up Daniel as the murder’s perpetrator, rather than its victim, revealing that—SPOILER ALERT—the corpse on the beach was that of his former roommate, the crazed bisexual conman, Tyler (Ashton Holmes).

“It was always meant to be Tyler,” Kelley said. “It was more of a bait than a bait-and-switch, because I always knew it was going to him. You’re going to find out what actually did happen on the beach that night and exactly how culpable Daniel is in the death of Tyler, and we’re messing that guy up a bit. He’s been a bit of a pinball in this show. He’s been duped by his mother and by Emily. We’re going to wind him up, and he’s going to become a darker, more formidable force. We’ve also activated Jack, as well, to get sucked into this world. We always wanted to keep the triangle alive. We just wanted to make our characters a little messier.”

Emily’s targets, the sickeningly wealthy Grayson clan, whose fortune manifests itself in lavish and over-the-top fetes and a sprawling fortress built on relative new money, are distinctly members of the ruling elite, and Revenge’s retribution thread arrived during a time of economic turmoil, Occupy Wall Street, and a putative cultural uprising from the 99 percent. “We’re in a time now in American history where people have felt a great deal of economic suffering and there are certain people they regard as the bad guys,” said Stowe, taking a break between scenes while dressed in an outfit more befitting a femme fatale than her icy society maven. This show, she said, “is a way of looking into that world and allowing yourself to feel hatred and resentment, watching as people’s lives become dismantled. That’s just age-old drama.”

There’s a sense of serendipitous timing at work here, and the show inadvertently depicts the very tug of war between the haves, the have-nots, and the newly disenfranchised that seems to be playing out in headlines across the country.

“We got very lucky regarding the times we’re living in as far as a launching point for the show,” Kelley said. “The reason people are connecting to Emily is because there are so many disenfranchised people, and so many members of the 99 percent are feeling like somebody else is in control of their futures, of their finances, of the choices that their families are able to make. So when Emily is able to wreak havoc on the people that are the decision makers, that hold the purse strings, the employers that really seem to live above and beyond the rest of the world, and take those people down, it’s wish fulfillment.”

That timeliness, according to Gabriel Mann, who plays Emily’s twitchy and troubled software billionaire partner-in-crime Nolan Ross, is one of the reasons that Revenge has captured the imaginations of the viewing audience.

“There is definitely a culture that we’re in right now where it feels like sometimes evil really does win,” he said. “But if you peel back the curtain and look at what’s behind it, it’s a bunch of very nervous, very unhappy, very angry people with a lot of money. People have started to catch on to the fact that being rich is certainly very far from being perfect.”

Mann’s Nolan could be an analog for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in a lot of ways: largely unable to construct empathy and possessing a malleable morality and a staggering wealth. “The template for the character was Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates,” said Mann. “Those guys present a casual humble appearance to the world, and Nolan Ross is the opposite of that. He thinks that, along with his success, he can show success through the way he puts himself together.”

Nolan has become a breakout character, an outsider prone to staging hidden-camera recordings, bankrolling elaborate revenge schemes, and partnering with Emily on her quest for vengeance. Nolan and Emily’s scenes crackle with deadpan wit and innate tension, since he’s the only person privy to her secrets and to her endgame.

“He’s got this schizophrenia to him,” said Mann. “He’s a three on the Kinsey scale, so he could be with anybody, and there is the possibility that anything could happen. In his own eccentric way, he’s got his own superhero uniform, which is the more popped collars, the more power. All he needs is a big N stitched to the front of one of his polo shirts, and we’re off and running.”

The show seems to revel in that sort of heightened reality, something that Kelley said is entirely intentional. This sensation is furthered by Revenge’s use of green-screen technology. While digitally painting the background allows Southern California to stand in for the Hamptons, it also creates a snow-globe effect as well, its artificiality a step removed from reality, much as Hitchcock achieved with the painted backdrops in his 1964 thriller Marnie.

“It’s by design,” said Kelley. “There is this lovely, surreal quality about the show: something doesn’t feel quite right, but it’s still beautiful to look at … We like keeping the viewer trapped in our world. There’s something about it that feels magical and distant, and a little bit spooky.”

Which seems more calculated than one might expect for a show labeled by many, including Entertainment Weekly, as a “guilty pleasure,” a moniker that has pigeonholed many melodramas. “We’re not a show that can take itself too seriously if we want to do the things we want to do,” VanCamp said.

“There’s no way one person’s going to come in here and pull off being a karate master and a safecracker and have all of these incredible skills,” said Stowe. “That’s just not going to happen.” For others, such as Mann, there’s no reason to say that soap is a dirty word. “Mike takes these classic soap conventions—amnesia, evil twins, nemeses—and flips it every single time to take it to some new level with a wink and a lot of appreciation for the genre that it came from.”

They’re defending something that doesn’t need defending. Television in 2012 is built almost entirely around raw pleasure—guilt doesn’t and shouldn’t enter the equation, whether the show in question is reality TV or a sophisticated nighttime soap, and Revenge doesn’t engender such guilt, not even for a second. But false snobbery lurks everywhere, even within those who are just as quick to obsess over the latest scheme enacted by Emily and Nolan as they are to judge the viewing habits of others.

And where Revenge succeeds is with the meticulous structuring of serialized plot and detailed mythology. “I made a choice early on with this show to really blast through story, and it’s become a signature of the show,” said Kelley. “All of those ‘holy shit’ moments that we pack into every episode, they still have to be grounded, and it’s a giant monster that you have to keep feeding.”

“It’s a real challenge as a writer, so when you use the term ‘guilty pleasure,’ it makes you think that it’s not a complicated show, the writer is not complex, or it’s not thoughtful or thought out. And if I take offense to anything it’s just how much effort the writers and myself and the actors and the producers put in to making this show work. I just don’t want that work to be diminished.”

While Revenge is creatively solid, there have been teething issues along the way. Kelley said he relies heavily on his second-in-command, Mark B. Perry, but a sizable swath of the writing staff was let go and high-level writers like Mark Fish (Damages) and Liz Tigelaar (Life Unexpected) were hired.

“It’s a very tricky show to write and the writers that I started with were all terrific, and sometimes it’s just a better fit with different writers,” he said. “I have nothing but real respect and real gratitude for the whole writing staff from Day One through the people that now form the staff … Sometimes the network gets involved, sometimes there’s bad luck. I’m very hands-on with scripts, and I think there comes a time when you need fresh perspective and launching a show is really challenging. I just needed to bring in some fresh eyes as we moved into the back nine. There’s a budget that I have to adhere to, and if I could have kept everybody, I absolutely would have.”

Fortunately, the most recent episode proved that Kelley and his writing staff are willing to take chances. Seven episodes remain, following the murder of Tyler on the beach, and the plot will move forward, even as it looks backward.

“We’re doing an entire episode that takes place in 2002, as our 20th episode, which is going to bring back all of the conspiracy characters,” Kelley said. “It’s New Year’s Eve at the Graysons’ house. That photograph, from the beach house, with Emily in the background as the caterer, we’re going to show what happened that night, and that was the night that she laid eyes for the first time on these people and committed to her revenge plan, which takes eight years for her to figure out, until she returns as Emily Thorne.” Elsewhere, Daniel’s darkness will be accompanied by a reunion of sorts between Emily and Jack, and the audience will learn more about Emily’s past, including her connection with her enigmatic Japanese sensei (yes, I said “sensei”), Satoshi Takeda (Hiroyuki Sanada), and when she chose to become Emily Thorne.

While ABC has yet to renew Revenge for a second season, a sophomore year seems a given, and eventually, there will be a showdown between the show’s primal forces, Emily Thorne and Victoria Grayson. There are two ways the show can end, said Kelley.

“One of them is that Emily and Victoria will be standing across from each other with their wicked deeds between them, and it ends with each character forgiving the other,” he said. “But I reserve the right to go for the apocalyptic ending. The true way to get out of revenge is to forgive, and that’s why I started with Emily saying in the pilot, ‘This is not a story about forgiveness.’ But sometimes she protests too much.”