Some people complain that reality TV is fake, but I’ve always felt like fundamental problem with the genre is that it’s not nearly fake enough. No matter how dramatic things might get on a season of Survivor, we know that the contestants are in a controlled environment surrounded by camera-men and medical personnel. “Villains” like Russell might talk a big game, but it’s fundamentally a PG-rated Lord of the Flies, a paid vacation for contestants to get tan and trim; the only true threat is that someone might embarrass themselves on national television. It’s worth remembering that the initial pitch for Lost was a fictionalized Survivor — which is to say, a Survivor where the castaways might actually kill each other. ABC’s new melodrama Revenge isn’t perfect, but at its best, the show suggests a kind of Lost-ification of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise: It conjures up a world where social homicide might actually turn into actual homicide.
I have a deep abiding love for over-the-top melodrama — watch an old Douglas Sirk movie on Netflix to see what I mean, assuming you haven’t given up on ol’ Netflix just yet — so I literally laughed out loud when last night’s Revenge series premiere opened with a quote from Confucius: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” From there, the show hurled some rapid-fire plot points at us: We saw a man getting shot on a beach while fireworks went off in the background. It was a big old Hamptons engagement party, celebrating the impending nuptials of Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) and Daniel Grayson (Joshua Bowman.) You immediately understood that the Graysons were one of those not-to-be-messed-with power families, since Papa Grayson was played by Henry Czerny (who was the Shady Government Guy of the ’90s in Clear and Present Danger and Mission: Impossible) and Mama Grayson was played by Madeleine Stowe (in full-tilt silent-assassin mode.)
Turns out that Daniel was the dead guy…but before we could see the fallout of that revelation, the episode flashed back to the start of summer a few months earlier, when Emily was a new arrival at the Hamptons. From there, the show settled into a more leisurely (and somewhat rote) introduction. Emily, we learned, is actually Amanda Clarke, the daughter of a disgraced ex-Hamptons-ite. After a youth apparently spent in monochromatic juvenile delinquent centers, Amanda was legally emancipated just in time to learn that her late father was framed for his crimes. Apparently, the entire Hamptons framed him; the series premiere focused on Emily/Amanda’s attempts to destroy one guilty party in particular, Lydia, who was carrying on an affair with Papa Grayson.
Some of this was juicy fun. The hour was full of zesty flourishes — I loved the particular disdain in Stowe’s voice when, after learning about the affair, Mama Grayson announced to everyone that Lydia would be taking home the Van Gogh, not the Manet. (The series certainly looks gorgeous: Boat parties, empty beaches, lavish evening wear.) Still, I wonder if the show has overdosed a bit much on the Flashback Kool-Aid. It seems like, going forward, the series will focus on the summer leading up to the engagement-party murder — sort of a Damages-style plotline, and I’m not even sure that plotline works too well on Damages. And the sudden rush of twists in the last few minutes — including the revelation that internet zillionaire Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann) knows who Emily really is — gave me plot whiplash.
Still, I got a real charge out of the scenes where VanCamp and Stowe just stared at each other, like two predators circling each other trying to take a bite, or two prizefighters waiting for their opponent to drop their guard for just a millisecond. I think I’ll be sticking with Revenge for at least a few episodes. Fellow viewers, what did you think of the show? Can Revenge take over from the departing Desperate Housewives and the declining Gossip Girl as TV’s smart-trash sensation? Will you be disappointed if every episode doesn’t open with a quote from Confucius?
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich