Early-season check-in: Revenge

Over the next week or so, I’m hoping to check in with a number of the fall’s new series. Most have aired half-dozen or so episodes by now, so it feels like a fine time to see what they’ve improved on, if anything, since the pilot. These pieces won’t be too long, but they will still be good. Obviously. Up first today: Revenge.

The best thing I can say about Revenge is that it knows exactly what kind of series it is. And really, that is a substantial compliment for any series, particularly one as young as Revenge. Through six episodes, the ABC drama has been my favorite broadcast hourlong of the new season and while I see that it probably won’t be for everyone, Revenge knows what it is, seems to have a great idea of where the story is headed, but also doesn’t mind taking its time getting there.

Revenge’s strength lies in both its awareness and its simplicity. The first four episodes did a rock-solid job of introducing a few new layers to Emily/Amanda’s plan to take down those who ruined her father’s life. Those episodes presented a new character and a new way for Emily to take them down and each smartly showed the audience the execution of the leading lady’s diabolical plan. As a few reviewers took to noting, Revenge quickly became a secret quasi-procedural with the “revenge of the week” taking the place of “the case of the week.” After watching the pilot, I was a tinge worried about how Revenge would carry on through future episodes, but Mike Kelley and his production team wiped away those fears by the end of the second episode.

However, I have been most impressed by the series’ last two episodes. Instead of moving on to new targets as Emily did in the first four episodes, “Guilt” and “Intrigue” have slowed things down a bit and focused more on the consequences of her admittedly awful actions. While the initial quartet showed Emily as a flawless schemer with all the plans and holding all the cards, I’ve quite enjoyed how the last two episodes have put her on the defensive more. Additionally, the series isn’t allowing her to just get away with her revenge plots consequence- or conscious-free. The people she’s screwing with are much better at this than she is and in recent weeks, Emily has discovered this. It will be interesting to see how she reacts to the challenge in the coming episodes.

Most importantly, Emily’s conscious is starting to cause her to have some doubts about this entire project. She’s ultimately going to go through with many of her plans because that’s the inherent structure of the story, but I think it was really smart to present her as a flawed, complicated person who despite all the anger, rage and hatred, still wants to be good at heart. That inner turmoil and conflict adds some emotional potency to the proceedings, something I think Revenge does need. Though I definitely care about Emily’s plight, her steely façade is tough to break and if she’s going to avoid Jack for now (swoon, right?), the series benefits from having her be emotional elsewhere.

And generally speaking, I like how the series doesn’t let her off the hook. Yeah, this is a story about revenge and we’re supposed to identify and sympathize with the revenge-getter, but the writers aren’t afraid to force Emily into situations where she has to make bad choices or ponder the real consequences of those choices. Although the story is about revenge, the series doesn’t necessarily agree with or entirely revel in Emily’s plans and that’s just damn smart, I think.

Along with that, recent episodes have made in-roads towards developing other characters, particularly the obvious antagonists. Victoria is a really compelling woman who could ultimately turn out to be on Emily’s side and even though she and Conrad could have easily separated after the pilot episode, the series seems oddly invested in keeping them together and it actually sort of works me. The two of them are screwed up, lying cheaters who still want to stay together for appearances, but there’s an underlying sense of commitment there that I wouldn’t have initially expected.  Not everyone is overwhelmingly engaging – Daniel is still something of a wet blanket and his new buddy Tyler sucks – but Revenge is actually trying to develop characters and make the stakes relevant to them.

The story still works with Emily getting cunning Revenge on new rich people each week, but I appreciate how the series is trying to be something slightly more than that while still holding true to the soapy, fun core. In six episodes, Revenge has made the right steps forward and held on to the elements that helped make the pilot so enjoyable and that is why it is one of the best new series of the season.

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