May 12, 2013



Heroes probably still sets the bar for disastrous second seasons of initially enjoyable TV shows, but this year’s REVENGE came uncomfortably close.  ABC more or less acknowledged that fact when it (in a genteel, corporate way) fired series creator and showrunner till now Mike Kelley from the upcoming Season 3 (fellow Executive Producer Sunil Nayar is taking over), and we won’t know until the show returns whether new management can right the ship.  But first, we had to get through tonight’s 2-hour Season 2 finale.

Revenge started with a premise that was far-fetched but clear and fun:  Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp), a beautiful zillionaire, arrived in the Hamptons determined to destroy the Grayson family and all its friends, because in fact “Emily Thorne” was Amanda Clarke, whose father had been framed by the Graysons et. al for the terrorist bombing of a jetliner, and sent to prison,  where he was murdered.  “Emily” (let’s call her that) pretended to be in love with Grayson son Daniel (Joshua Bowman) to worm her way into the family’s intimate circle, where she could better ruin fabulously wealthy, vicious Victoria (Madeleine Stowe) and Conrad (Henry Czerny) with the help of her only ally, fellow zillionaire and brilliant computer hacker Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann).  There were complications, of course–Emily, back when she was Amanda, had loved young Jack Porter (who grew up to be played by Nick Wechsler), and her continuing feelings for him threatened to get in her way.  And eventually the real Emily Thorne (Margarita Levieva), whom our Emily had paid to take the name Amanda Clarke (so let’s call her that), showed up.  But those are the kind of zingy plot twists we expect from soaps.

There were hints of the stumbles yet to come even in Season 1.  Emily had a (zillionaire) Japanese trainer named Takeda (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) who seemed to conduct revenge/samurai commando training seminars, a conceit that felt disconnected from the rest of the show.  There were dark hints of a larger conspiracy behind the Graysons.  The person whose flashforward killing kicked the show’s pilot off turned out to be someone much less interesting than we’d been led to expect.  It was enough to make a fan a little concerned.

But Season 2 was much worse than anyone could have expected.  Weeks were spent on Emily’s long-lost mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who was crazy, or maybe she wasn’t, or maybe she really was, but who in any case had remarried (very lovingly) David Clarke’s murderer.  Victoria had one illegitimate child–no, she had two illegitimate children!  The plane crash had been plotted by a shadowy multinational cabal known as The Initiative.  There was a doomsday computer program called Carrion, and a supreme hacker called The Falcon (supreme until Nolan tracked her down in 15 minutes and beat her at a video game).  Everyone Nolan slept with, male or female, turned out to be a traitor, a psychopath or worse.  Takeda had another protege, Aidan Mathis (Barry Sloane), who was threatening Emily.  No, he was in love with Emily.  Wait–he had a connection to the plane crash too!  Wait–Takeda also had a loved one on the plane!  That was some crowded plane!

It was a mess.  And not a fun mess, just a sloppy, confusing, inept failure of plotting that set all the actors adrift, because any one of them would shift from sympathetic to duplicitous from week to week.  Back during Season 1, Kelley had said in interviews that the show was meant to focus on Emily’s revenge against the Graysons only for one year, and then it would shift to someone else’s vengeance, with Emily as a lesser character.  That may have been the way to go, although one can understand why ABC (and Emily VanCamp) might not have embraced it.  Forcing this material into 22 more hours, though, did nothing but ruin it.

The season finale (Hour 1 written by Producer Nikki Toscano and Co-Executive Producer Michael Foley, directed by Randall Zisk; Hour 2 written by Kelley and Executive Producer Mark B. Perry, directed by J. Miller Tobin) threw more plot at the TV wall.  Victoria’s daughter Charlotte (Christa B. Allen), who is actually Emily’s half-sister through Victoria’s affair with David Clarke, was not only pregnant by Jack’s brother Declan (Connor Paolo), but had a lesbian party-girl stalker.  Even though we’d been teased all season that The Initiative was planning a giant act of terrorism that would allow it to profit from the ensuing public panic (a cliche in itself), all they did was blow up Conrad’s office, killing no one, and how that was supposed to cause such widespread panic is anyone’s guess.  No, wait!  It did kill someone, expectant father Declan!  The plot set up for weeks that the Initiative would frame Aidan for the bombing was a misdirect, with the real patsy being Nolan.  Everyone had a motive to kill Conrad at the party celebrating his election as Governor of New York (yeah, that happened too), but in the end no one even tried.  And, in the last few seconds of the episode, Emily finally confessed to Jack that she was really Amanda Clarke.  (I would have paid good money for Jack to fire the gun that was in his hand at that moment–not because I wanted Emily to die, but because that would have at least been genuinely dramatic–but no.)

It’s probably unfair to compare Revenge to Scandal, which is currently providing a master class in just how to make a crazy, melodramatic, over-the-top soap play like grand drama, but it’s hard to resist.  On Scandal, as bizarre as the storylines may seem, they all operate according to a consistent internal logic and in accordance with the characters as we know them.  (Even last week’s jaw-dropping reveal, when you thought about it, made perfect sense.)  The pace is so swift that there’s no time for pondering plot details, and everyone on the show, without exception, is smart.  On Revenge, the plots are clunky and unconvincing, the characters are mostly cardboard dummies (no matter how many times they’ve betrayed others or been betrayed, it always comes as a shock to them when someone they trust turns out to be evil), and the revelations are doled out in plodding expositional scenes.

So hey, Season 3!  If ABC was in better shape, it’s not even clear that Revenge would be getting that far.  It started off very promisingly in the ratings, and even though it had retreated to the low 2s by last May, it was given the Desperate Housewives Sunday 9PM slot with the idea that it could grow there.  Instead, it’s shrunk, with a 1.8 last week compared to the 2.7 Housewives had in the slot for the same week last year (Revenge was actually tied with last year’s quickly-canceled GCB, which was in the 10PM slot).  But ABC has so many gaping holes on its schedule that a mere disappointment can survive, for now.  If the show doesn’t show signs of life in the fall, though, Revenge is unlikely to experience what we’re told is the best kind of its title–living well.

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."