How Much Revenge Is Too Much Revenge?

Brett Whitehead
September 28, 2012

West Side Story, the iconic play created by the trio of Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Aurthur Laurents, took a twisted path through the American melting pot before settling on the ethnic origins of the main characters. Originally, the character of Tony was intended to be Irish Catholic, and Maria, his culturally-opposed true love, was of Jewish decent. The play was intended to be centered on anti-Semitism in post-Holocaust America, but was shelved for six years when the trio could not bring the project to fruition. The current iteration came about when Bernstein and Laurents, influenced by the rise in gang activity in post-WWII America, changed the heart of the story to reflect conflict between two racially diverse “gangs,” and switched to the Puerto Rican-Caucasian relationship of New York’s West Side when all parties involved felt that the musical needed a “Latin beat.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Story#CITEREFLaurents2000.

At the heart of West Side Story, though, is the story of Romeo and Juliet. At the onset, Robbins, Bernstein and Laurents sought to create a modern musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s love story, and their success is a testament to the longevity of the original work. Among many others, the themes of love, family conflict, and community strife are both timeless and universal, and therefore it is not surprising that the plot structure would not only be repeated, but repeated successfully for hundreds of years following its creation. See http://www.gnomeoandjuliet.com/. After all, if timeless, universal themes are presented successfully once, chances are they will be successful again, right?

Well, kind of. See, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0165929/. REVENGE! is a fall serial drama series on ABC that I will hereby be writing with capital letters and an exclamation point to represent (1) how the name of the show should be said out loud and (2) the swashbuckling zest that carries both the theme of the show and all of the essential plot points. REVENGE! is, for the most part, a remake of Alexander Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo. For those unfamiliar, The Count of Monte Crisco is the story of Edmund Dantes, a man who is falsely accused of a crime due to the self-interested political leanings of powerful politicians. While in prison, Dantes meets a prisoner who both inspires and funds Dantes’ quest for revenge against those who wronged him. Dantes returns to French society under the moniker The Count of Monte Crisco, and proceeds to wreak havoc on those who originally framed and accused him. REVENGE! borrows heavily on the themes of revenge, family, and political corruption, with a similar modern update used in West Side Story. That being, instead of featuring French aristocrats, REVENGE! is filled with hot, sexy teenagers in the New York resort town of the Hamptons.

The end result is a worthwhile endeavor for those missing a weekly serial drama to round out the summer months until a new season of the Real World Road Rules Challenge returns mid-summer. REVENGE! has its flaws, but it is engaging television that corrects the flaws of similarly situated network television offerings. The show’s gratuitous servings of REVENGE! are innately engaging and provide the viewer with enough of a hook to foster continuous viewership. I would further argue that REVENGE! is presently at its peak, and therefore any curiosity regarding the show should be capitalized now before the whole thing goes to hell.

1. Introduction

The plot and characters of REVENGE! are less important to this article than the quality of the show, so I will tread lightly on the plot and keep you, the reader, on a “need-to-know” basis. The primary protagonist of the show is Emily Thorne, the daughter of a disgraced and deceased businessman who was framed by New York bluebloods for a terrorist attack on American soil. By way of a rich, sympathetic benefactor, Emily moves in next door to the Graysons, the family responsible for her father’s downfall. Because of forces that are easier not to dwell on, Emily is aided by bleeding-edge spy technology, an endless supply of money, and black belt-worthy karate skills. Emily burns through ancillary characters fairly quickly, but the Graysons are her primary target. The Grayson family includes Charlotte Grayson, the incidental youngest daughter with a drug problem, Daniel Grayson, the hunky benefactor of the family fortune, Conrad Grayson, the appropriately sounding evil father figure, and, finally, Victoria Grayson, the manipulative mother played by the surprisingly fetching Madeline Stowe.

2. REVENGE! fills a void otherwise rendered empty by prime time television.

Approximately one lifetime ago, Ray and I were both graduate students with no money and little concern for productivity, hygiene, and the nuisance laws of New Castle County. In the fall of 2005, I completed a time-consuming project and decided to celebrate by purchasing the recently released season one DVD of Lost. My study hours during that time relegated my television watching to the hours of 11 to 1, both am and pm, so I rarely if ever watched television during prime time hours. Neither Ray nor I knew anything about Lost aside from the brief, but interesting, tidbits that were featured in commercials. After starting season one Friday afternoon, we proceeded to burn through all 22 episodes that weekend, only taking breaks to buy Taco Bell burritos and Natural Light 24 packs.

I am probably not alone when I say that Lost was the first serial dramas that I followed continuously via DVD and television. That interest drew me into similar shows which included, but were not limited to, Battlestar Gallactica, Dexter, and The Wire. (Author’s Note: I think Mad Men sucks. After 8 episodes, it seems like it is a show about a miserable man who works a miserable job to avoid his miserable family. The foriegn nature of 50’s nostalgia does not compensate for the lack of murderous space robots.) Unfortunately, for all of these shows, all good things have endings. Even though I hated the 6th and final season of Lost, I still miss watching every Wednesday night and discussing it with people the next day. To make matters worse, Battlestar Gallactica (hereinafter “BSG”) ended a four season run during that same time period. In a matter of a few months, the two weekly dramas I relied on were gone and replacing those two shows became a lot harder than expected. See http://watching-tv.ew.com/2010/09/20/the-event-season-1-episode-1/ (featuring “If Lost and 24 had a baby…”).

REVENGE! is in no way a replacement for Lost or Battlestar Gallactica, but it comes as close as anything else on television right now. While REVENGE! never hits the iconic or memorable moments that the above referenced shows perfected, it also never makes the mistakes that made them so maddening. The story in REVENGE! is linear and it rarely dovetails into ancillary stories or characters that distract from the essential points of Emily’s search for reveng…, I’m sorry, REVENGE! When the narrative follows secondary characters, it never falls off the tracks like Lost and BSG. For example, an ancillary character in REVENGE! is accused of murder late in season one and the story arc involving the murder trial lasts only three episodes. That included the arrest, pre-trial investigations, presentation of evidence to the jury and the verdict, all in less than a collective two hours. That is incredibly refreshing when you consider the first three episodes of Lost Season 2 took three different points of view of a mundane fact pattern that had little to no involvement in the overall resolution of the story. See http://lost.about.com/od/episoderecaps/a/2×1.htm. A more concise difference is that REVENGE! has very few, if any, loose ends which relate to the primary objective of the narrative. The cliffhanger endings are resolved within at least two weeks, so there is no frustration over false promises. In REVENGE!, the story stays on track and is easy to follow, which makes jumping in at any point both easy and interesting for viewers tired of watching Fringe, Alcatraz, or any other show with all of Lost’s negatives and no upside.

While this is a strong benefit in favor of REVENGE, there is a bittersweet, logical downside. Recently, I was discussing The Wire with longtime Brutalhorse.com reader and benefactor John State Farm, heir apparent to the Northeast Car Insurance fortune. In explaining why I liked Battlestar Gallactica better than The Wire, I mentioned that The Wire’s commitment to a realistic presentation of crime and justice in inner city Baltimore restricted it from being as captivating as Battlestar Gallactica, a story that took place with no realistic restrictions. There are only so many surprises and shocking turns present in a story which essentially resolves around people’s jobs. On the other hand, when placed in a world where murderous space robots infiltrate the human race, there is considerable leeway for shock and awe. (On the other hand, the BSG approach leaves an opening for lazy writers to explain away plot points with bullshit supernatural means. Starbuck was a ghost, seriously? -ed.) On both ends of the above referenced spectrum, REVENGE! resides on the more realistic side. This means that while there are no frayed loose ends, REVENGE! doesn’t take a lot of chances with the overall story. I was not satisfied with how Lost or Battlestar Gallactica resolved overarching plot holes, but I could at least appreciate the creativity of trying to milk a mystery over the course of approximately 100 hour long episodes. To that degree, REVENGE! will never drive you crazy, but I doubt it will blow away viewers just the same.

Another interesting comparison between REVENGE! and its predecessors is that the presentation of REVENGE! is subtly reminiscent of Lost, which may be coincidental but it is more likely that ABC is preying on our sense of nostalgia. Strictly in regard to the form of the show, REVENGE! hits a lot of the same production nuances that made LOST engaging. The opening sequence, the narration and background music are not directly analogous, but the similarities are acutely noticeable. Even the cliffhangers at the end of each episode, which are common plot devices to the point of cliché in primetime drama, are oddly evocative of Lost in way that gives more weight to the story of REVENGE! than the actors earn on their own. ABC has struggled to find the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Lost with wonky sci-fi rip-offs that oversell mystery in place of character development. Interestingly enough, ABC may have found that the winning formula is not replicating the plot of Lost, but the intangible aspects that viewers were accustomed to viewing during LOST’s five year run. See http://psychology.about.com/…/pavlovs-dogs.htm.

3. REVENGE! delivers on the promise of gratuitous revenge.

Earlier this week, I was driving through the town of Bird in Hand, Pennsylvania. Bird in Hand, PA is a small town 6 miles east of the City of Lancaster with a large Mennonite and Amish community. See http://www.bird-in-hand.com/. While passing the many farmer’s markets and candle stores, I wondered if the town’s name was reflective of its humble exterior. Maybe the citizens of Bird in Hand had aspirations of big city life or suburban, middle class pleasures, but were content knowing that what they had in their small town was better than risking their security 6 miles down Route 30 on the mean streets of Lancaster, PA. See, http://spotcrime.com/pa/lancaster. As it turns out, the original settlers of Bird in Hand were faced with that same quandary; however, whether or not the name still influences people to stay in a town that constantly smells like horse poop is probably unquantifiable. See, http://www.amishnews.com/towns/birdinhandhistory.htm.

To the same extent, it’s hard to say how important the name of a television show affects that show in the long run. In my efforts evaluating the importance of a name of television shows, every conclusion was both too hyperbolic and filled with glaring logical holes. In my humble opinion, no show has a more schizophrenic relationship with its moniker than How I Met Your Mother. To one extent, the show has a singular plot line that one day must be answered. The title gives the show purpose and the viewer a goal to justify habitual support. On the other hand, the show is eternally handicapped by an inherent paradox. Once the question in answered, the show no longer exists. The success of the show required that the answer be infinitely delayed and ultimately devalued the interest of those wanting to know how the characters find what they are supposed to be looking for. Therefore, while it is hard to reach a definite answer as to the influence of the title, one can say that the name of the show can affect, for better or worse, the course of the narrative.

Using the paradigm set forth in How I Met Your Mother, the name REVENGE! gives the show purpose and direction; and to that end, the show has a shitload of revenge. The name directs all plot points, as the following stories featured in the last few episodes of season one display the title’s influence.

  1. In Emily’s quest for revenge against a man who killed one of her family members, Emily inserts a spy cam in the man’s house. On multiple occasions in the past, Emily has inserted spy cams and eavesdropping devices in the homes of her targets to assist with revenge. Before Emily can get revenge, the man kidnaps Emily’s friend as revenge for Emily’s revenge. In promising to recover her friend, Emily vows revenge.
  2. Victoria Grayson, the matriarch of the Grayson family, seeks revenge against her husband by exposing the secret that Emily is trying to get revenge for. Victoria wants revenge against her husband for cheating on her with her former best friend, a woman who Emily got revenge against by helping Victoria get revenge for her infidelity.
  3. In a flashback episode, the Grayson family is given an anonymous note threatening to expose their secret as revenge for setting up Emily’s father. The Grayson family throws a party to expose the anonymous threat to get revenge on the sender. One guest is demonstratively remorseful and the Graysons get revenge by murdering him. It turns out that another guest sent the note to goad the Grayson’s into getting revenge on the wrong man. Young Emily is present at the party and this is where she first decides to get revenge.
  4. A character is murdered and another main character is accused of the crime. The character is murdered motivated by revenge when he planned on exposing Emily’s plan for revenge as revenge for her relationship with the Grayson’s son, a relationship based on revenge. The murdered character was also ostracized from the Grayson family as revenge for possibly exposing Grayson family secrets as, you guessed it, revenge.

If all that sounds confusing, it shouldn’t. Everyone in this show hates each other and deserves comeuppance. Episode by episode, someone gets their just desserts, usually by the hand of the protagonist. If that doesn’t sound appealing, you’re probably just weird. Physiologically, a show with consistent revenge is naturally appealing. In a study conducted by Swiss researchers, the brain activity of subjects was recorded during an experiment where revenge was extracted by the subjects for a staged, economic slight. The study revealed that subjects who exacted revenge experienced neural activity in a “rewards” area of the brain that similarly produces reactions to nicotine and cocaine. See, http://www.psychologicalscience.org/i…/the-complicated-psychology-of-revenge.html. Other studies on the psychology of revenge indicate that a majority of people favor revenge less as personal retribution, but more as a reinforcement of society’s values. German psychologists Ernst Fehr and Simon Gechter coined this term “altruistic punishment,” alluding to the fact that the party seeking revenge does so even though the avenger is often harmed during the vengeance process. Fehr and Gechter floated the interesting, but probably unlikely, hypothesis that humans may have evolved to physiologically believe revenge would make us feel complete, in order to get us to go through with the unsatisfying and likely personally harmful act. Therefore, although the smarmy characters dancing across your television screen did not harm you personally, their downfall reinforces the idea that people who are harmed as a result of corporate greed should be punished rather than rewarded. See, http://www.apa.org/…/revenge.aspx. The more practical point is that you could do worse in life than enjoying in some good old fashion REVENGE! once a week.

4. REVENGE! is only going to get worse from here on out.

On May 23, 2012, the first season of REVENGE! ended as a highly successful prime time drama series. Season one gained success running the final leg in ABC’s Wednesday line-up, which featured ratings colossus Modern Family. See http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/…/for-the-season-abc-marks-its-best-wednesday-results-in-5-years/. Due to REVENGE!’s success against the more established serial crime dramas running on opposing networks, the series was renewed for a second season, which will debut this fall. See http://tvline.com/…/renewals-abc-2012-fall-tv/. By all accounts, REVENGE! found an audience and will retain that audience due to both the content of the show and the success of the shows around it.

If it seems like I conveniently left out the second half of the How I Met Your Mother point about the negative aspects of the title of a show, it is because I saved that for the section heading listed above. REVENGE! has an obvious, built-in expiration date, which at some point will ruin the show. Revenge is not a complicated narrative. Eventually, Emily has to get revenge. Emily’s plan will come to fruition and the Graysons will be ruined for destroying her family. The key point is when that will happen and whether or not the show will draw out the plot to keep the show going past its natural expiration date.

How I Met Your Mother should serve as a cautionary tale of over-promising an outcome, but the fact that HIMYM is a comedy lessens the frustration. While I am interested in meeting the woman Ted marries, the comedy aspects of the show are certainly more interesting than the payoff of the plot. A drama, however, is different. The only reason I watch REVENGE! is to see Emily get retribution, and the plot can only go so long before the show will collapse under the weight of its own expectations. A more apt comparison in this case is Prison Break. See, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prison_Break. In 2005, Prison Break debuted on the FOX Network to the delight of Ray O’Connor. Ray advocated strongly for this show and even cancelled social plans so he could watch on Monday nights. At his urging, I followed season one up through the thrilling season finale, in which despite possessing a fully realized plan to escape from prison, the protagonists inexplicably remained incarcerated. Maybe I’m naïve, but I was very disappointed by the outcome. It serves to speculate that people only have so many chances to break out jail and the failure of Wentworth Miller and company to do so made the show feel immediately burdensome. The inevitability of a strained and drawn out conclusion seemed preordained and I never watched Prison Break again. Although ratings would stay positive through season two, the demand for the same five people to repeatedly break out of prison took a toll on the viewership and the show ended after four seasons. See, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prison_Break#Ratings_and_critical_reception.

Rebuttal from Raymond O’Connor

I do admit—much like finishing second in fantasy baseball only reminds you of the long, tedious slog of the upcoming season—the finale of season one of Prison Break was burdensome. But, I would argue that Shakespeare again has something to say here: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” In other words, I don’t think the problems with Prison Break and potentially REVENGE!!!! have as much to do with their names as with their chosen genre: the open-ended drama. As a counter-point, Lost had the same name problem. What happens when they’re not “lost” any more? During a few seasons of the show they weren’t actually lost, but the story progressed. I think that where these shows falter is how they handle their names becoming irrelevant. Prison Break was great the first season, pretty great the second season, but once they completed the program’s namesake, the show fell fast. Eventually they ended up back in another prison, from which they again had to break, but at that point I had checked out. I watched up until the last three or so episodes, never to learn the Scofield brothers’ fate. Ultimately, the show could not handle itself during the post-break phase. The characters ended up running around, attempting to peel back the layers on some nebulous “company” that framed Lincoln Burrows. I don’t think anyone really cared though, at least, all I cared about was prisons, and possibly breaking in and/or out of them. And sweet full-body tattoos on sexy dudes.

At the time of this writing, I watched the season finale of REVENGE! and without spoiling anything, the seeds for a second season of REVENGE! have been sown. The finale did not result in the same disillusionment as Prison Break, but signs that the show is never going to end are readily apparent. As the show progresses, REVENGE! will probably get crazier and wilder to keep the plot going and end up being a caricature of the charming show premiered this Spring as a remake of The Count of Monte Crisco. The sad part is that The Count of Monte Cristo ends perfectly. Set with a fixed objective, Dantes gets revenge on the people who wronged him and sets sail for a new home having tied up all loose ends left behind. While one can hope for the contrary, Emily Thorne seems destined for a life of perpetual revenge promulgated by ABC execs and the hope of syndication on TNT.

So by all means, enjoy the first season of REVENGE! before it loses sight of itself. Thankfully, ABC On-Demand features a catch-up episode which makes the subsequent six episodes both digestible and enjoyable during final summer months when there is nothing on television besides So You Think You Can Dance. While the end of this article may have described an unfavorable future for a charming premise, consider further the German psychological studies mentioned earlier. Despite having an immediate neuron rush upon exacting vengeance, avengers rarely if ever felt long term satisfaction from their actions and often show more unhappiness than people who are denied the opportunity for revenge in the first place. REVENGE! is a good show that will likely leave you feeling disappointed, and in the end, maybe that’s the way that REVENGE! is supposed to be.

brett.whitehead@brutalhorse.com
ink splash

Jacques Dangereux, app by WildTaters

Check out The Ringer by Camp Dracula,
available now.

The Ringer, album by Camp Dracula