December 4, 2012



REVENGE, in its second season, demonstrates the perils of stretching a good thing too far.  (Also being stretched:  ABC’s concept of a “fall finale,” since unlike shows like Revolution and The Walking Dead that won’t be returning until February or March, Revenge will be back after the holidays.)

Revenge started with a premise that was, if not simple, at least focused:  Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp)–who’s actually Amanda Clarke, but let’s call her Emily–set out to accomplish the titular task by destroying the Grayson family, which had framed her father for terrorism-related activities and ruined both their lives.  Many schemes, betrayals and large and small crimes followed, but they mostly stayed within the framework of Emily’s overriding motive.  This all could have been a compelling 22-episode self-contained story, sort of what American Horror Story is doing in the horror genre on FX, but since the series was successful enough to garner renewal, what to do with a new pile of hours to fill?

The answer, under the direction of series creator and showrunner Mike Kelley, has been to spread the original story far and wide.  This has resulted in:  a spate of episodes devoted to Emily’s half-crazy mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and what turned out to be her very genuine decade-long marriage to the Grayson hitman who murdered her husband and Emily’s dad; a lot of time spent around the bar owned by Emily’s first love Jack Porter (Nick Wechsler), who’s now married to the Amanda Clarke (Margarita Levieva)–who’s really Emily Thorne, but let’s not just started with that–and learning about Jack’s father and the problems he had when he first opened the bar; and a great deal of corporate skullduggery within and around the boardrooms of Grayson Global and NolCorp, the latter being the conglomerate founded by Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann) with money provided by Emily’s father (thus making him Emily’s surrogate brother and closest ally).  It’s also brought in a new romantic interest for Emily, in the person of Aiden (Barry Sloane), another member of the never-really-defined secret revenge organization that seems to be informally run by Takeda (Hiroyuki Sanada), who’s sort of a meaner, more violent Yoda.  Worst of all, it’s required the creation of The Initiative, another wing of the shadowy, all-powerful,quasi-governmental group of evil plotters who seem to be behind the scenes of every conspiracy-minded show on television.

All of this has watered down the impact of the original Revenge quite a bit, as has the show’s need for constant reversals.  Now Victoria and Conrad Grayson (Madeleine Stowe and Henry Czerny) are murderous foes–no, wait, now they’re allies again.  Now Daniel Grayson (Joshua Bowman) is a dupe and basically nice guy–hold it, now he’s a vicious, scheming villain.  Since everything is up for grabs, nothing has any emotional impact, because as soon as you decide to root for one character or another, that person switches places.

The “fall finale” episode, written by Story Editor Ted Sullivan and directed by Kenneth Fink, flowed smoothly enough, but fell into all these traps.  There are now so many surveillance cameras watching the Graysons, between Emily’s, Nolan’s and the Initiative’s, that the family is practically ready for Real Housewives of the Hamptons, and Emily and Aiden successfully manipulated sex-tape footage of Ashley Davenport (Ashley Madekwe), who was once Emily’s friend and Victoria’s social secretary and is now Daniel’s lover, so that Daniel was able to push himself into the big chair at Grayson Global, thus placing him in the Initiative’s cross-hairs.  Meanwhile, in the most diverting plotline, the goings-on at NolCorp have the bisexual Nolan about to get into corporate bed, so to speak, with his former male and current female lovers, who are also his former and current CFOs.  We’re still embroiled in the story of the travails Jack’s dad went through 20 years ago with the bar, because the season’s flash-forward involved the sinking of Jack’s boat, which means it must all add up to something.  And who even knows what Jack’s brother (Conor Paolo) and Daniel’s sister (Christa B. Allen)–who’s also Emily’s half-sister, but whatever–are up to at this point.

all of this is starting to seem pretty tangential to Revenge‘s original purpose, and while the acting is still high-level soap and the plot machinations never stop coming, the show increasingly feels like an empty, mechanical exercise; you can practically see the index cards on the walls of the writers room.  Revenge has done all right for ABC, but it hasn’t become the breakout hit the network wanted and needed, with ratings significantly below the final, all-but-spent year of Desperate Housewives in that show’s Sunday night berth.  If it’s going to build or even sustain, Revenge needs to find some new life and energy, rather than putting all its effort into finding variations on the same well-trodden circles of story.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."