The Welcome Straightforward Soapiness of Revenge

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REVENGE - "Pilot" - In the premiere episode, "Pilot," Emily returns to Southampton and rents the seaside home she shared with her father, David Clarke (James Tupper), 17 years ago. With the help of her only friend, Ashley, she sets her sites on her first target, and puts her carefully organized plan in motion. Her focus unexpectedly wavers when she comes across Jack, a friendly face from the past, makes a new romantic connection with the son of her sworn enemy, and is pushed into an uneasy alliance with the only person who knows her secret, on the series premiere of "Revenge," WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21 (10:00-11:00 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/JIM BRIDGES) EMILY VANCAMP Photo: Jim Bridges/? 2011 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

When ABC announced its fall shows, way back in May, Revenge seemed particularly unpromising: a soap opera set in the Hamptons about rich people offing each other while trading very intense looks over a very intense soundtrack? One that seemed to be the mutant offspring of Gossip Girl, Desperate Housewives, and Masterpiece Theater? Pass. But this is why you shouldn't judge a show by its tagline — even when it is, as in the case of Revenge, "Some forgive. Others forget. But all she wants is revenge."

It's nominally based on The Count of Monte Cristo, and though in almost every particular this "origin" is irrelevant, it does have a similar tone — grand and grandiose, permanently straight-faced even as the ridiculous coincidences pile up and up and up — and a plot that speeds along with no regard for its increasing complexity. When no outlandish fix is outlandish enough, there is always an escape hatch.

It's nominally based on The Count of Monte Cristo, and though in almost every particular this "origin" is irrelevant, it does have a similar tone — grand and grandiose, permanently straight-faced even as the ridiculous coincidences pile up and up and up — and a plot that speeds along with no regard for its increasing complexity. When no outlandish fix is outlandish enough, there is always an escape hatch.

The show establishes its dead-serious tone early on, opening with an epigram from Confucius, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." It then segues into the heroine's voice-over: "For the truly wronged, real satisfaction can only be found in one of two places: absolute forgiveness or mortal vindication. This is not a story about forgiveness." The opacity of "mortal vindication" encapsulates the show's vibe, in that it will never say "killing people" when "mortal vindication" will do. Cross your fingers, we may just get a duel on Cooper's Beach.

Linda Holmes, writing today over at NPR about how horrible Charlie’s Angels is (which it is!), tells a story about the Revenge press tour, when a journalist asked the producers if "they would consider ending an episode with star Emily VanCamp simply shaking her fist at the heavens and yelling, 'REVEEEENGE!'" One could actually imagine this happening on the show, and not as a joke. If Revenge is camp, it's in the original Sontag-ian sense, not its now common usage. Revenge is not winking at us — we watch it and wink at each other.

Revenge is not art, or even a great TV show (is there really enough plot to keep this thing interesting for a whole season, let alone many?). But it is a welcome break from two tiresome and booming TV trends:

1. Middlebrow, mediocre television pretending to be "Quality," as if period costumes and settings (The Playboy Club, Boardwalk Empire) or subverting viewer expectations (The Killing) automatically establish a show's bona fides.

2. Shows so desperate to be liked and capture our famously reduced attention spans that they become twitchy and antic, with knowing and clever voice-overs, hyperactive to match our supposed hyperactivity.

Revenge is not “quality,” it's not twitchy, and it's not embarrassed about being middlebrow and stately. It's a throwback. A melodrama, full stop. Like the television equivalent of Peach Melba, it may be out of style, but it tastes pretty good.