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TV Checkup: 'Revenge'

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Nov 03, 2011 | 11:09am EDT

Revenge Emily Van Camp ABCYou’d think that a series starring a WB series alum and a former Gossip Girl brat would be nothing more than a blip on the radar, but ABC’s Revenge is a series worth checking in on. I’ll admit, at first I thought this series was little more than grown-up Gossip Girl, and in a way it is, but it has unexpectedly surpassed that comparison. Instead, we’ve got a delicious, dark, complicated web of lies that doesn’t get a pretty little solution when the semester ends.

Revenge stars Emily Van Camp as Emily Thorne, a young woman with a big secret and a thirst for…well…revenge. She returns to the Hamptons – the location where a group of wealthy, selfish tycoons unjustly ruined her father’s life – to get even under a pseudonym. Things become a little complicated when people from her past start to recognize her. The first, Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann), is a young man with infinite wealth and an affinity for Emily’s late father. He throws himself into Emily’s lot, helping her exact her vengeance. Things are complicated further when Emily gets closer to her target, Hamptons matriarch Victoria Grayson(Madeleine Stowe), by starting up a romance with Victoria’s son, Daniel (Josh Bowman). If this isn’t enough, the heroine enters into a bit of a love triangle when blue collar dreamboat Jack Porter (Nick Wechsler) – and Emily’s childhood sweetheart – doesn’t know who she really is, but senses the connection between them. All this is only a tiny sliver of the drama that’s already unfolded after just seven episodes.

But how does this series, which appears to do little to separate itself from other salacious dramas like Desperate Housewives or Gossip Girl, stand out? There are a few simple and very important factors at work here. First, the elimination of the “slapstick” or goofy elements that many melodramas employ to show us they don’t take themselves too seriously. Sure, those elements are cute and entertaining, but they distract from the biggest hook: the danger, romance and double-crossing. It was fun seeing Terri Hatcher have to run across her lawn naked in order to escape her ex, but eventually this back and forth between murder mystery and housewife hijinks hinders the possible trajectory of the plot. When you always have to lighten up a bit for a few laughs, it limits the emotional hook you can create with the drama – unless the writing is absolutely perfect. For a fluffy serial drama, that’s a lot to ask.

While the new ABC series does acknowledge when it borrows plot devices from classic literature and Emily spouts the occasional quote from the Bard, the series isn’t obsessed with its own cleverness. It’s not over-used and it’s not waved around like a trophy. Elements of literary inspiration pop up here and there and are often supportive of the drama, rather than a distraction for the sake of showing off – something Gossip Girl is terribly guilty of. Of course, on the other side of the coin, we have the classic soap opera style acting to contend with. It can be grating for a while, but eventually the intrigue gets the best of you and it’s easy to ignore an awkward or over-delivered line here and there.

Revenge also separates itself by not being afraid to get in too deep. There’s a sense, especially with shows like Gossip Girl, that everything will be okay – no matter how big the cliffhanger – as long as we get to the next episode. The big danger will get enough of a solution to make us feel comfortable and we can float along while Blair calls everyone by some witty, insulting, shamelessly pop-culture inspired name. That’s not so in this Hamptons mystery. The further we go down the road, the more the cliff we’re standing on crumbles. Revenge doesn’t let you stay comfortable and it isn’t afraid to complicate things to an impossible level. No moment feels safe – even scenes of Emily and Daniel frolicking on the beach seem like a ripe time for some plot to unfold. It’s melodrama, pure, simple and honest and while there are cop and lawyer shows aplenty that deliver equally consistent drama, the last thing we need is yet another show about law enforcement officials. Bring on the Hamptons brats and disgruntled private body guards instead.

You probably won’t need seasons upon seasons of Revenge on Blu-ray, but you will need to watch every episode to keep up. It’s been my cure for the Gossip Girl blues and it’s even better than what the doctor ordered.

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