ABC’s Revenge, which returns Sunday night, is an enigma. It is not particularly well-written or plotted. The actors gather themselves up with a solemnity befitting the Royal Shakespeare Company, then spend it on lines like “Trust is the one luxury I cannot afford.” It is also the kind of show that divides character names into two groups: the vaguely aristocratic (Victoria Grayson) and the working-class Irish (Declan Porter). It’s the kind of show that cautions the exceedingly wealthy to think twice before stepping onto an airplane, or into an empty Manhattan loft: You never know where someone might have left an errant bomb or hitman. But don’t worry too much: Death has a malleable, impermanent quality in this context; the Reaper, like the accountant, is a connoisseur of loopholes. Revenge is a show, in short, where the aesthetic credo is: Make it ludicrous.
The so-bad-it’s-good cultural artifact has a storied history in America, but the peculiar tradition to which Revenge belongs is the rich, campy primetime soap opera—your Dallas and Dynasty and Knots Landing, even your Melrose Place—a tradition which has been somewhat dormant in recent years. The appeal is not hard to understand. These soaps have a habit of popping up at the same time as hillbilly shows—i.e., when the economy tanks. Self-referentiality and humor are ushered offstage in favor of aggression. Like everything else about these shows, the appeal is blunt.
And the numbers suggest we’re eating it up. Though not exactly a monster hit, the audience for Revenge is far larger than chattering-class favorites like Mad Men or the frayed ends of successful franchises like Law & Order: SVU. And it got the highest award television executives know to bestow on a successful property: a slobbering half-clone called 666 Park Avenue, a marriage of Revenge and American Horror Story.
The reviews for the show, too, are much more positive than many of those that that greeted, for instance, Dynasty and Melrose Place. But there’s something odd about the critical commentary around the series. Much of the praise for the show relies on a kind of ersatz class consciousness. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, though its reviewer sniffed at the show’s “background sociology”—in which the rich are evil and the poor are hardworking bartenders—still said that such themes made the show “up-to-date.” In the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley called it “Gossip Girl tailored to this economy.” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum: “It could be the official soap opera of Occupy Wall Street.”
Mmm. If you say so. To my eye Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke (Emily VanCamp) is hardly a warrior for the working classes. Her argument is that her dad was a much more ethical investment banker/hedge fund manager/whatever—sure, he squirrelled away millions for her in foreign bank accounts, but I’m sure he paid all appropriate taxes—and did not deserve to be framed for an act of terrorism (fair enough, really) by less scrupulous capitalists. Emily’s vaguely Irish love interest owns a vaguely Irish bar that is in danger of foreclosure, but a beneficent rich person sweeps in pretty quickly to keep the banks away.
Such things are class warfare only if you keep company with extremely defensive investment bankers. We live, we are endlessly told, in a golden age of television, but it’s probably a good idea not to expect that the refracted entertainment lens have any goal higher than whatever suits the network suits. If what you’re into is the truly excellent deployment of hair product and wardrobes that scream “I really got in there and negotiated that pre-nup,” then just say that. I, for one, would welcome a soap opera that involved a working-class young woman working to seriously take down some corrupt element of the financial system in America. I’d even forgive the surreal soap opera sheen on such a thing. Whatever else it is, Revenge ain’t that.