There are only two shows I’ve heard people buzzing about this fall, and conveniently they air back to back on ABC. The first is Happy Endings, which I began watching three weeks ago and have since become utterly obsessed with. It remains the first and only show I’ve ever actually invested money into at the iTunes store. Beyond a doubt, it’s my new favorite comedy and ten times funnier than anything else on TV, and that most certainly includes its lead-in, the once-triumphant and now rote Modern Family.
The other noteworthy series is Revenge, a title so inherently melodramatic that I couldn’t help but hear a dramatic chord play in my head as I emboldened the text just now. People, especially my friend jash, have been buzzing about Revenge for several weeks now, and so I decided to take the plunge. This was something of an undertaking for me as I’m fairly reluctant to hop on a soap train once it’s started. I don’t like playing catch-up — I have a hard enough time keeping up with the shows I already watch, let alone ones I’d have to troll through Hulu to watch. But that’s exactly what I did (insert self-congratulatory applause here), and am I so thoroughly happy with that decision (more self-congratulatory applause). It’s safe to say that like Happy Endings, I am now utterly obsessed with Revenge (both on TV and in life I suppose), and so naturally, what better way to extol the virtues of the show than by writing about it here on this blog?
What enthuses me most about Revenge is that the upside is so great. It’s probably the best nighttime soap to air since the first season of Gossip Girl — a deliriously wonderful show at one point (I’ve since stopped watching, sadly). The comparison is apt because in many ways, Revenge is the blueblood soap that Gossip Girl has aspired to morph into in recent seasons. Set in the opulent world of the Hamptons and often relying on technology to reveal major twists, the series are definitely two birds of the same feather… however, this bird has Madeleine Stowe.
At the end of the day, what people will always remember about Revenge is how great of a vehicle it has become for the resurgent actress. Stowe has always been a favorite of mine, and to see her back in a prominent role delights me to my core. It’s actually pretty shocking that I wasn’t already watching this show for her alone. She’s great. Truly. If there’s not an Emmy in store for her, the Academy is crazy. Then again, the Academy has proven itself crazy multiple times over; so I suppose that’s neither here nor there.
Madeleine Stowe brings pitch-perfect haughtiness to her role, but she’s not just some campy ice queen. There’s vulnerability too and even glimpses of warmth in her occasionally jocular exchanges with her kids (that is, when she’s not belittling their life choices or wishing aloud that they had never been born). The point is though that she’s not a cartoon. She’s a fully realized character, which is partially thanks to the writers but also to Stowe. In the hands of a lesser actress (think anyone on Ringer), the role of Victoria Grayson would have been shrill and ridiculous.
Perhaps the only false note is the general WASPiness of Victoria. I’m not sure this is Madeleine Stowe’s fault as much as it the production team. Despite the beachy opulence present, Victoria (and most of the other women) look less Hamptons and more Upper East Side, and while some would argue that they are one and the same, there is a distinct difference. I consider myself a minor expert on the subject given that I was raised in WASP-ville (Martha Stewart lives in my hometown now — and yes, I totally just name dropped). However, one only needs to look as far as The Barefoot Contessa and even certain episodes of The Real Housewives of New York City to get a sense of the casual wealth out there on Long Island. I suppose it’s more fun to watch these society women dressed to the nines all the time (who wants an inelegant villain?), but the quibbler in me would love an even greater adherence to WASPy style (the men, meanwhile, seem more or less on point).
This all leads me to believe that the writers may not have spent a huge amount of QT with the bluebloods of the Hamptons, but that’s really okay. As long as the show is entertaining, I really don’t mind. Unfortunately, it’s also apparent the writers have certainly not rubbed elbows with the working class heroes of the town, as epitomized by the Porter boys: Jack and Declan. Talk about a snooze-fest. There’s rarely anything more boring on a soap than the token poors who clash with the 1%, and that’s usually because Hollywood writers tend to craft these characters as inherently good people who value honesty, say it like it is, and see through everyone else’s bullshit. In other words, totally unrealistic. Nothing ever rings true with these characters (think Ryan Atwood on The OC, Dan Humphrey on Gossip Girl), and what’s worse is that the writers tend to push these boring drones into the realm of righteous indignation. Downer. When we, the audience, fall in love with the likes of Victoria and her rival Lydia (a wonderful Amber Viletta), are we really supposed to give a shit about the twerp down at the dive bar who spits at their feet and says phrases like “You PEOPLE.” No. Not at all.
Admittedly, the poors on Revenge are not the worst we’ve seen; however, it’s safe to say that Declan, as portrayed by Connor Paolo, is the very worst character on the show. He’s the classic righteous punk, drawn half from some reimagination of 1950s greaser bravado, half from the awful mold of Ryan Atwood. I dig his arc — falling for the rich girl. That’s all fine. But his dialogue feels far from authentic, which may be solely due to the terrible, overly-affected performance by Paolo. It’s a travesty that he’s on this otherwise well-cast show; a veritable black-eye on what could have been the best new drama ensemble on network TV (and probably still is). When Paolo played Eric van der Woodsen on Gossip Girl, his limited acting abilities were easy to overlook. It was the CW after all, and his role was small enough to be inoffensive. Now though, Paolo plays a central character, and forcing someone truly talented like Madeleine Stowe to share even a millisecond of screen time with him seems like a crime against humanity. I’m sure the palpable disdain that Victoria feels towards Declan is merely Stowe’s general contempt for Paolo’s acting abilities — or lack thereof.
Seriously, Connor Paolo is awful. His body language, his gestures, his line readings — they all feel like they belong at the Wiliamstown Theatre Festival, not on TV. Everything feels forced and overdone — like we’re witnessing his first days in acting class. And let’s not start on that accent of his. Or multiple accents. Sometimes it’s New Yorkish. Sometimes it’s Bostonian (he has a penchant for saying “Baahh” instead of “Bar”). And sometimes it’s just vintage John Travolta. Whatever it is, he’s the only one attempting this silliness, and it’s further proof as to why he must be either killed off or at least re-cast. Please, ABC. He’s ruining EVERYTHING.
The character of Jack, however, is thankfully more tolerable, and as played by Nick Wechsler, he’s a mellow guy who doesn’t sneer (too broadly) at the Graysons. He’s less righteous and more realistic about his status in life; however, Jack is also dreadfully boring, and not even the presence of a cute dog (who’s awfully spry for being allegedly seventeen years old) can save him. Not helping Jack’s cause is the music coordinator for Revenge, who happily inserts a dreary bit of emo in anticipation of the Porter brothers appearing on scene. There’s nothing worse than when a particularly juicy scene is followed by B-Roll of the Hamptons accompanied by a sad guitar and a whining voice. Why not flash a sign on screen that says “BORING PORTER BOYS UP AHEAD”? The music always means it’s time for Jack scrubbin’ down the bar, thinkin’ about Dad, and keepin’ it real about finances and city people. Snooze.
It’s downright hard to believe that Emily Thorne would ever spend one ounce of time falling for this guy, especially when she has the hunkiest man on TV yearning to get in her pantaloons. I of course talk about Daniel Grayson, who is nice, handsome, charming, educated, and generally Mr. Perfect. How could we ever be expected to believe that Emily would trade him in for Jack (the mere utterance of his name puts me to sleep). It makes for a nice dilemma, but c’mon now. Are there any viewers out there that are actually rooting for Jack? DIdn’t think so.
As for the rest of the cast, we have a delightful potpourri of interesting characters. There’s Nolan, Emily’s odd, occasionally annoying but always helpful buddy. There’s Charlotte, the angry rich girl who inexplicably likes Declan (maybe she has a thing for guys who try to talk like the Fonz). There’s Conrad Grayson, the cheating and villainous patriarch. There’s Lydia, the sexy, insecure, and easily-thrown-from-a-rooftop mistress (WE NEED MORE OF HER), and there’s Ashley, the generally useless assistant/party-planner who usually serves as a mouthpiece for exposition (as well as a walking PSA for proper eyebrow grooming). Lately, Ashley’s been given the choice opportunity to date Tyler, a gay-ish grifter, who is the WORST but in a good way (not a Connor-Paolo-ruining-everything way). Oh, and there’s the dangerous Frank too, but it looks like he’s dead, given that the last we saw him, he was lying lifeless in a roadside planter. And who was he killed by? The REAL Emily Thorne. Dunh dunh DUNH!
I haven’t even talked about Emily Thorne, née Amanda Clarke, which is shocking since she is our heroine — or perhaps anti-heroine. The daughter of a man framed and presumably killed by the Graysons, Emily is out to destroy the lives of those who ruined her father. It’s a rather loathsome quality to be honest, but hey, I’m on board. In fact, I’m so much on board that I’m willing to overlook her implausibly deep financial pockets and her ability to be kickass about pretty much everything. She’s a borderline superhero, a lady Jack Bauer who specializes in sneaky takedowns as opposed to brutal beatdowns (although she can apparently do that too). I’m intrigued to see where her journey takes us (and if the opening scene of the series is any indication, it’s to Daniel’s untimely death — sad!).
In Revenge, the producers have created a small and ever-expanding landscape of entertaining characters that we can’t get enough of (Porter brothers excluded). We want to be in this world; we want to see how everything unfolds. Unlike the similar (and decidedly more low-rent) Ringer whose gleeful stupidity serves as the only reason to watch (and I definitely watch), Revenge is actually engaging because it’s GOOD.
My only hope is that the producers can maintain pitch-perfect soapy tone of the show. Revenge works because it doesn’t aspire to be a great drama but merely a great soap. In this way, it’s actually something of a great show in general, but whenever this happens (again, I must cite The OC, Gossip Girl, and even Desperate Housewives), the producers feel the need to be more than just a soap, and this usually results in darker story lines full of brooding and alcoholism and cancer and divorce (and not the fun, soapy kind of divorce either — Lydia’s situation, e.g.). I just hope that now that the producers get a taste of critical acclaim that they don’t try to trade in their A-level B-grade entertainment for something that could play on AMC. Stay the course. That’s all I want. Oh, and for them to get rid of Connor Paolo.
What do you think about the show? Are you hooked too?