The new drama “Revenge” begins where it ends, or at least where its first season presumably ends: during Labor Day weekend in Southampton, N.Y., at an engagement party for Emily Thorne and Daniel Grayson. But Daniel is missing from the red and white — fire and ice — party. He’s on the beach, getting shot. Emily (Emily VanCamp) is seen back at the party, wiping sand from her arm and telling a friend Daniel (Josh Bowman) is walking the beach. It’s her voiceover that introduces viewers to this dangerous world: “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.”
Is Emily guilty? Did she kill Daniel, or at least have him killed? As the pilot unfolds, we learn Emily is actually Amanda Clarke, and she’s out for revenge against his parents, Conrad and Victoria Grayson (Henry Czerny and Madeleine Stowe), and other Hamptons high-rollers who helped frame her hedge fund executive father, David, for a crime of funding terrorists. That sent him to prison and his daughter on a path of vengeance. As Emily, she’s out to take the perpetrators down, one by one. But murder? No matter who committed that crime, things obviously got out of hand, veering from a pleasureful vendetta to a bloody mess. And that’s the problem with revenge (but hopefully not “Revenge”), which a quote from Confucius reminds viewers of at the start: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
Getting to that murder, however, could be a fun ride, as sadistic as that sounds. “Revenge” is pure soap opera, frothy and filled with bitchy stares and snobby elites. The average American loves to see those in the upper classes brought down, although I wouldn’t exactly put ABC’s new show in the group of class warfare. As Amanda, Emily was one of the wealthy, too, and she’s über rich now: Her father left her 49 percent of the company owned by tech genius Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann). David was the only person to believe in Nolan, giving him startup funds out of his own pocket, and in a flashback we see Nolan greeting Emily at 18 as she’s released from a juvenile detention center. He tells her she’s rich and gives her a gift from her father, whom she believed was guilty and hadn’t seen in 10 years: a wooden box containing his journals that detail his innocence. But there’s no time to reconcile: David is dead.
Robbed of her father, Emily plans her revenge carefully as she works her way into Southampton society around Memorial Day, and handily for viewers she constantly reviews on her laptop old news reports about her father’s trial. Those mixed in with flashbacks flesh out the story and show all who were complicit in the betrayal of David. Emily rents the same beach house where she and her father once stayed during summers; its current owners, Michael and Lydia Davis, are going through a breakup that Emily may have had a hand in. She certainly helps bring down Lydia, her dad’s former secretary who testified against him, by “accidentally” letting Victoria know Lydia and Conrad are having an affair. Victoria, the queen of the Hamptons, essentially banishes her friend, publicly disgracing her. Lydia also is now broke; Emily had photos taken of her and Conrad, an affair that triggered the fidelity clause in her prenup. Emily marks a red X over Lydia’s face on an old photograph of David and his former Hamptons friends. In the second episode, Emily destroys Bill Harmon, the head of a hedge fund who was David’s friend before he falsely accused him of insider trading. Harmon is the one who relies on insider trading, and Emily tricks him into betting on the wrong stock and losing everything. Another red X goes on the photograph. Victoria, meanwhile, is using her husband’s security team to dig for dirt on her new neighbor. As the ultimate enemy, Stowe looks great and plays evil and conniving almost too well.
Nolan is in the Hamptons, too, recognizing Emily and wanting to help her on her crusade. He wants to avenge David, but he’s also lonely. He tries to reach out to Jack Porter (Nick Wechsler), a blue collar Southamptoner who doesn’t recognize Emily as the Amanda he once knew as a kid and whose dog, Sammy, he has cared for since she disappeared. Jack is trying to keep his father’s tavern from going under, selling his beloved boat to Nolan to help pay off banks, as well as watch over his younger brother Declan (Connor Paolo), who has eyes for Victoria’s daughter Charlotte (Christa Allen). Their story lines are a bit much for the already packed plot, but Jack’s presence mainly is to remind Emily of who she once was and, potentially, who she could be again. But Emily already is in too deep, setting her sights on wooing Daniel Grayson, whether her intention is his death or not.
That’s the other problem with “Revenge”: the heroine is also the villain. Viewers’ sense of her father’s betrayal is secondhand, distant and not as keenly felt as it should be for us to really be on her side. We’re simply rubberneckers, watching Emily wreck the Hamptons and wondering if we really should be taking such delight in the carnage. VanCamp (formerly of “Brothers & Sisters”) does a well enough job as the lead, although as a cold and often fake character, she only has so much to work with. Emily needs more internal conflict to be relatable — perhaps if she actually begins to care for Daniel, or if Jack learns her identity and tries to dissuade her from quest. Emily’s father was wronged, but right now, she’s on the path to being just like those who wronged him.
Carved on the box Emily’s father left her is a double infinity symbol, the same symbol tattooed on her wrist and carved into the railing of her beach house. It was a saying the two of them shared, that they loved each other infinity times infinity. Now Emily’s hate goes on forever, and we know her summer will end in death. It’s all fun and games until someone is shot in the back. Let’s hope Emily is given enough range throughout the season to make us care if she is or isn’t guilty of that bloodshed. For now, however, we’re guilty of not being able to look away.
“Revenge” airs at 10/9C on ABC.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh corgi.