Emily VanCamp, the star of Revenge, sits by the fireplace in her character’s Hamptons cottage, chatting away happily. Then, in an instant, her sweet eyes turn icy. She purses her full lips until they’re hard and narrow, and stares stonily into the distance. If you watch ABC’s new hit drama, you know the look. VanCamp conjures it up regularly as the diabolical Emily Thorne, whose family has been subjected to grievous injustices over the years, and who loves nothing so much as a pissed-off flashback. VanCamp has grown so fond of the look that she’s even given it a nickname: the Croc. ”In the pilot, I had this idea that Emily was like a crocodile,” she explains, her face brightening. ”She’s swimming around the Hamptons, taking people down all over the place, and I thought that was so hilarious as an image. So we call that look the Croc, and it’s a big ongoing joke on set. I do it all the time.”
Revenge, a modern, soapy retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s exactly what fans love about it. The Wednesday-night drama is drawing a healthy 8.5 million viewers per week — quite a feat in this season of the sitcom renaissance, especially given that no broadcast network has successfully launched a prime-time soap with this much buzz since Gossip Girl in 2007. Now Revenge and its sudsy formula — unhappy rich people living in Hamptons mansions bitchily backstab one another while wearing gorgeous clothes — have viewers, critics, and ABC wanting more. ”It’s really sexy and it’s full of romance,” explains ABC’s president of entertainment, Paul Lee, who gave the show a full-season order on Oct. 13. ”At the same time, it speaks to America’s class system: There’s a sense, underneath the surface, of anger.”
The road to Revenge was swift: After ABC development executives latched onto the idea of a Cristo update, the network tasked Swingtown creator Mike Kelley with building a series loosely based on the oft-retold story of a man who was wrongfully imprisoned and then spends his life plotting elaborate revenge. This time, though, ABC wanted the update centered on a woman, to capitalize on its female-heavy viewership. Kelley went to work, drawing inspiration from Damages, The O.C., and old soaps like Knots Landing.
What Kelley came up with was a twisty narrative built around VanCamp’s Amanda Clarke, a pretty 27-year-old who returns to the Hamptons using the identity of Emily Thorne to take down the people who sent her now-deceased father, David (James Tupper), to prison on false charges when she was just 9 years old. Thorne’s main target is her next-door neighbors, reigning Hamptons clan the Graysons, led by ”Queen” Victoria (Madeleine Stowe) and her husband, Conrad (Henry Czerny), both of whom conspired to frame David and helped institutionalize Amanda as a kid. The show’s success, Kelley contends, hinged on casting VanCamp and Stowe, a duo who provide much of the show’s campy delight via their frosty showdowns. ”If I could have sketched them in my head, that’s what they would have looked like,” Kelley says. ”Who can summon darkness behind the eyes? I don’t know anyone except Emily who is able to do it.” Adds Stowe, ”The writing is best when we’re at it with each other.”
While viewers love to watch Emily and Victoria in action — Stowe is behind many of Revenge‘s most deliciously over-the-top sound bites (”Every time I hug you, the warmth you feel is my hatred burning through”) — the central mystery is what’s most intriguing to fans. The pilot set up a whodunit in its very first scene, as Grayson heir Daniel (Joshua Bowman) was shot on the beach during his Labor Day engagement party to Emily. From there the show flashed back to Miss Thorne’s Memorial Day arrival in the Hamptons and her subsequent social annihilation of four adversaries in a row.
To keep all the interwoven story lines straight, the writers’ room has dry-erase boards on three walls. One details the current story, another previews future arcs, and the last outlines the mythology of the show. Mythology — really? Really. As Thorne’s complicated past gets revealed in bits and pieces (she volunteered for a senator’s campaign, served on the Landmark Preservation Committee, worked as a cater-waiter, and yet somehow found the time to buy a building just so she could install hidden cameras), the timeline approaches Lost-like levels. ”We do have a lot of mythology — and much more coming out,” Kelley acknowledges, ”so we’re going to try to keep track of that so the audience doesn’t get frustrated.” Speaking of which, much has been made of the show’s golden retriever, Sammy, who was a present to Amanda on her ninth birthday and yet still bounds around like a puppy at 18 years old. (He’s now under the care of hottie bartender and Amanda’s childhood crush Jack Porter, played by Nick Wechsler.) ”I’m addressing all of this in the future about the dog, I think to some satisfaction,” Kelley teases. ”The dog is technically on his 18th birthday. It’s not impossible; it’s unlikely. If it’s not impossible, it’s on Revenge.”
Keeping up momentum on a serialized show like Revenge isn’t easy, but the network doesn’t seem worried. ”Some of the greats of American television, from Desperate Housewives to Dallas, have been serialized,” Lee says. ”Serialized appointment television is incredibly valuable, not just on our network but all around the world.” (Translation: Lucrative overseas sales ahead!) In fact, the success of Revenge couldn’t come at a better time, considering this is the last season of Housewives, one of ABC’s longest-running dramas. ”You’ve just got to be really smart about how much you tell and how quickly you tell it,” Lee adds. ”Mike is absolutely hitting the spot on that.”
Of course, that’s not by chance: Quick resolution, Kelley explains, is ”a rule of thumb” for the show, which is designed in arcs. The first will wrap in episode 15, when viewers will finally learn what happened to Daniel Grayson on the beach. The remainder of the season moves into winter in the Hamptons and the trial following Daniel’s shooting. Kelley explains, ”If we do this right, this season will end with the beginning of next summer in the Hamptons.” As for future seasons, Kelley sees an underlying theme of vengeance that could allow Revenge to spin yarns for years to come. (Our burning questions: Where is Emily’s mother? And is her father definitely dead?) While VanCamp’s character will remain the lead, others will get their own vengeance-themed arcs; Kelley specifically has one in mind for fan favorite Victoria. ”When you find out what happened to Victoria early on, you’ll understand why she’s become the kind of individual that she’s become,” Stowe reveals. ”It’s all this huge defense mechanism that has to do with what was done to her.”
More immediately, however, the residents of Southampton will be reeling from (if you haven’t yet watched, spoiler alert!) the recent introduction of the real Emily Thorne (Margarita Levieva) and her shocking murder of former Grayson head of security Frank (Max Martini). Also coming up: A revenge mentor surfaces for VanCamp’s Emily from her past; Tyler (Ashton Holmes) and Ashley (Ashley Madekwe) team up in their scheming; things get chillier between Conrad and Victoria; and Grayson Manor welcomes a new (and comatose) resident. As crazy as all the escapades may sound, Revenge has one golden rule, according to Kelley: ”The punishment needs to fit the crime,” he says, explaining story lines that have seen a therapist locked up in a storage unit and a politician being shamed out of office by a pregnant mistress. Don’t expect the madness to slow down, Kelley teases. ”There are some pretty nasty crimes out there,” he says, ”so in many of these episodes, Emily is going to be showing her teeth.” Time to summon the Croc.
Meet the Players
Billionaires, party planners, queen bees, hot bartenders, and not one but two Emily Thornes… Confused yet? Try this guide to all the power players caught in the tangled web of Revenge.
Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp)
Her father, David Clarke, was wrongfully arrested for heinous crimes when she was 9. Now the former Amanda Clarke is back in the Hamptons with a new moniker and ready to make the people who ruined her life pay.
The Real Emily Thorne (Margarita Levieva)
The girl who switched identities with Amanda Clarke in juvie has recently made her way to the Hamptons — only to kill the Graysons’ former security chief Frank (Max Martini) after he discovered the ladies’ secret.
The Graysons (Madeleine Stowe and Henry Czerny)
Victoria is known for her soirees (and less known for her affair with David Clarke); her now-estranged husband, Conrad, heads Grayson Global. The pair seem to have led the conspiracy to frame Clarke back in 1993.
Daniel Grayson (Joshua Bowman)
The golden bad-boy is shot during his engagement party to Emily in the flash-forward that opens the pilot. We’ll have to wait to see if he survives, but right now he’s wooing Emily — and turning over a new leaf.
Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann)
The socially awkward tech billionaire is responsible for giving Emily the keys to her revenge plot — her father’s journals — as well as her fortune. (Thanks to her dad’s early investing, Emily inherited 49 percent of Ross’ company.)
Jack Porter (Nick Wechsler)
Porter, who runs Montauk’s Stowaway bar, still carries a torch for childhood pal Amanda Clarke (see: his boat named The Amanda). While he doesn’t know that Emily is in fact Amanda, he feels a strong connection to her.
Ashley Davenport (Ashley Madekwe)
The British import is Emily’s closest friend and Victoria Grayson’s right-hand woman for planning parties. She’s dating Tyler and, as was recently revealed, has aspirations to acquire a life like Emily’s…at any price.
Tyler Barrol (Ashton Holmes)
Daniel’s business-school pal who’s staying with the Graysons for the summer, Tyler is constantly scheming to land a more permanent spot in the family. He and Emily have butted heads several times — and are due for a real reckoning soon.
Our Recipe for Revenge
Rich, dysfunctional family (Dallas)
Ball gowns galore! (Dynasty)
Sunny, picturesque locale (Falcon Crest)
Wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance (The O.C.)
Hot guys! (Melrose Place)