The revenge fantasy is common enough. We’ve all had them. Just a little bit longer, just let the Machiavellian mechanics of my cunning scheme whir together, and they’ll see, they’ll all see.
But what about watching someone else’s revenge fantasy?
That becomes a little bit more complicated, because if you make the revenge too cruel, too disproportionate, too unsettling, our sympathies shift.
That challenge will continue to cause complications for the writers of Revenge, a surprisingly enjoyable show amid a lot of mediocre fall premieres. In Revenge, a mashup of Leverage and Gossip Girl, young, attractive Amanda Clarke reinvents herself as Emily Thorne, a rich 26-year-old socialite who just bought a beach house in the Hamptons. But she’s arrived with an ulterior motive: to destroy the lives of the rich residents who framed her father and sent him to prison.
But — especially in the first six episodes — Revenge suffered from the fact that, well, I felt bad for some of the villains she brought vengeance to.
Part of it is that it had been 17 years since they committed their sins. A few of them, like a court-appointed therapist who unethically institutionalized Amanda, seem like genuinely good people who made regrettable decisions under difficult circumstances. Sometimes she frames them for crimes or actions they didn’t commit (poetically appropriate, sure, but more cruel). Sometimes her revenge plots use innocent, unknowing people as tools to hurt others, or put innocents in danger.
And, most disturbingly, she ruins people’s lives.
Somehow, that’s a more cruel sort of revenge than a bullet to the head. We don’t have a problem with Batman beating up thugs and throwing them in prison, nor with Inigo Montoya stabbing the six-fingered man, but ruining someone’s life? That’s almost too real.
Death and prison, to the average American, probably seem abstract. They’re the sort of concepts tossed around casually in Hollywood scripts, but we can all imagine, all too explicitly, how easily an especially clever, ruthless, and wealthy person could destroy our careers, relationships, or finances. There’s something disturbing about seeing an apparent hero do it so casually and ruthlessly.
The good news is that Revenge seems to have realized this. The last crop of episodes before Revenge went on break for the winter (it returns Wednesday) halted most of Amanda Clarke’s schemes-of-the-week, placing focus on the consequences: This is where she hurt people, here’s how she’s in danger, here’s how even her seemingly amoral partner-in-revenge believes she’s gone to far.
And that’s exactly the approach that Revenge needs to take. Drama (especially soap opera drama) is at its most fun when it dabbles in the gray areas. And faced with the alternative of stacking the deck, making every one of Clarke’s revenge targets a complete villain, cheating them of nuance, this method is a far better one.
But the screenwriters need to realize that, if Amanda Clarke veers too far off the straight-and-narrow in her road map for revenge, the viewers will stop rooting for her. Give us someone else to root for instead — maybe with them even taking righteous vengeance on Clarke — and Revenge becomes brilliant.
You've got a second season right there.