In a year with so many high-profile disappointments on the network TV schedule – the dead-on-arrival The Playboy Club, the impossibly bad Charlie’s Angels remake, and the show for people who’d like to watch Mad Men but can’t stand subtlety, Pan Am – ABC’s Revenge has been a surprise hit. It’s got a lot of things going for it: a likable star (Emily VanCamp), a great villain (Madeleine Stowe), all sorts of crazy plot twists, and a ridiculously attractive cast. But more than anything else, I think that its appeal boils down to the two genres of film and television that the show draws heavily from, and the fact that those two genres probably have no business being mixed together. The results are addictive.
If you haven’t checked out the show (and I suspect that most guys haven’t, given that the show seems to be pretty female-skewing in its appeal), it’s got a pretty complicated premise. The show is set in the beachside community of Southampton, New York, where the 1% go to summer. VanCamp plays Amanda Clarke, who grew up there with her father David. When Amanda was still young, her father was framed for a heinous crime he didn’t commit: financing the terrorist bombing of an airplane (in the mold of the Lockerbie bombing). As a result, David was sentenced to life in prison, where he subsequently died, and Amanda spent the rest of her childhood and adolescence in foster homes and a juvenile correction facility. Once she turned 18 and was released, Amanda decided to switch identities with her cellmate Emily Thorn (Margarita Levieva) and use the inheritance she got from her father to seek revenge on the people that framed him, including socialites Conrad (Henry Czerny) and Victoria Grayson (Stowe). In the first episode of the show, Amanda (under the guise of Emily) returns to the Hamptons, buys the house she grew up in, and commences her elaborate revenge scheme.
If this all sounds pretty cheesy, that’s because it is. The show has one foot firmly planted in the primetime soap opera genre: there’s a guy who goes off his meds and holds everybody at gunpoint, a bisexual technology tycoon, a love triangle with potentially murderous implications, and no shortage of over-acting. A straight line can be drawn between Revenge and a slew of previous TV soaps, including 90201 (both the original and the current incarnation), Melrose Place, The O.C., and Gossip Girl. These shows all follow a pretty simple formula: they track the glamorous and far-fetched lives of a group of rich teens or twenty-somethings, with as many plot twists as can be packed into 43 minutes. The archetypes are all familiar – the Rich Bitch, the Nerd, the Wild Child, the Guy or Girl Next Door, the Cheating Husband, and, on very rare occasion, the Decent Human Being.
What makes Revenge intriguing is the inventive way it differentiates itself from the pack. All of the aforementioned shows are riffs on a familiar theme: 90210 is rich kids in Beverly Hills, The O.C. is rich kids in Orange County, Gossip Girl is rich kids in Manhattan, Melrose Place is rich twenty- and thirty-somethings in West Hollywood, and so on. On the surface, Revenge could easily be dismissed as ‘rich kids in the Hamptons,’ but there’s also something else at play. At the heart of Revenge is, appropriately, a revenge narrative that seems to be inspired by a very different tradition.
While loosely based on The Count of Monte Cristo, the presence of a female protagonist and the outlandish plot twists place the show more in line with the cycle of female revenge exploitation films of the 1970s. Have you seen Tarantino’s Kill Bill? Then you already know a lot about this sub-genre. Not only it is a recent example of a female-centric revenge flick, but it’s also chock-full of references to 70s revenge movies. The single biggest influence on Kill Bill is Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime), which just happens to be one of my favourite movies. It’s the glorious tale of a young woman (Meiko Kaji) who seeks vengeance against the criminals who murdered her family, with much head severing and blood spurting to show for it:
Other examples of the genre include the Swedish film Thriller – A Cruel Picture (also know by a variety of other names, including They Call Her One Eye) and I Spit on Your Grave (originally known as Day of the Woman).
These types of films are often called ‘rape/revenge’ movies, owing to the tendency for rape to be the incident that provokes the female protagonist to seek revenge. Interestingly, neither Kill Bill nor Revenge utilizes rape as a major motivational factor for the protagonist, though the most recent episode of Revenge does include one major character falsely crying rape in an attempt to avoid a potentially damaging situation (a despicable act in and of itself), and Kill Bill does allude to sexual assaults that occur but are not really related to the main ‘Bill vs. The Bride’ narrative. (One is tempted to say that contemporary Hollywood is increasingly shying away from rape as a plot device, perhaps owing to the considerable controversy that the graphic rape scenes in 70s revenge movies elicited, though the brutal rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo obviously challenges this theory.)
The teen-oriented primetime soap opera and the 70s revenge exploitation film. Not exactly a combination you’d expect, but for Revenge it has led to an unpredictability and depth of character (for the protagonist, at least) that is not often to be found in other teen dramas. Given the fact that most of the villains on the show are the worst kind of conspicuously wealthy elitists, it’s not difficult to see why the show has struck a chord with audiences in this economic climate. There are rough patches to be sure, but if, like me, you enjoy seeing a group of dastardly villains get their comeuppance, you could do a lot worse.