Anthony D’Alessandro is managing editor and contributor to AwardsLine.
At the onset of the 2011-12 season, Mad Men knockoffs Pan Am and The Playboy Club were primed to be the masters of the broadcast drama universe but ABC’s Revenge stole their thunder. The series created by Mike Kelley kicked off with an electric set-up (a dead body on the beach during an engagement soiree), irresistible twists and a string of sexy, complex characters that rivaled the dramatis personae of any premium cable show. Revenge plays like a bastard relative of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story in its deconstruction of Long Island high society, swapping The Great Gatsby’s North Shore of the 1920s for the Hamptons of today. (“I have never visited The Hamptons, but I’ve definitely visited nighttime drama,” Kelley quips.) World Series fixers of the Jazz Age are replaced with the millennium’s one percent who’ve unscrupulously licked the recession. Instead of a lovelorn Jay Gatsby we have a vindictive Amanda Clarke in Revenge, a juvenile delinquent turned socialite under the alias Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp). Her m.o.: Decimate the Grayson family, the folks who took her father’s life, in particular her dad’s ex-Queen Bee mistress Victoria Grayson (played with campy gusto by Madeleine Stowe). Close to 9 million on average last season tuned in for Revenge, making it ABC’s most watched 10 PM show in four years, since Lost in 2006-07. Awardsline’s Anthony D’Alesandro spoke with Kelley.
HOW REVENGE CAME TOGETHER: After Swingtown [on CBS], which was a personal story about my wonder years through my parents’ bedrooms (during the 1970s) and [CW’s] The Beautiful Life: TBL, which I did per my contract at CBS and which died a merciful quick death, I wanted to hook up with a network that was a better fit for my sensibilities. … Paul Lee, who just came in as president [of ABC Entertainment], was interested in doing something based on The Count Of Monte Cristo. At the same time [production company] Temple Hill wanted to do a show that took place in the Hamptons. I loved The Count of Monte Cristo, but there was no way one could do a show like that in linear fashion. So my take on it was to do it through the eyes of a wronged child and have her come back for revenge. So I sat down with this idea that already had a lot of enthusiasm behind it from the network and studio and in one afternoon, it all began to break quickly.
EP/PILOT DIRECTOR PHILLIP NOYCE SEASONS WITH SALT: Phillip took everything in my imagination and made it better, especially the visuals. For example he made Emily Thorne more of a bad ass with martial arts training than I initially imagined her. At the last minute, we had Emily threaten to break Nolan’s (Gabriel Mann) windpipe by throwing him against a wall. That came out of Philip’s conception of Angelina Jolie in Salt.
SYMPATHY FOR THE FILTHY RICH: While I wanted to have fun with the super rich being super awful, I wanted the characters grounded emotionally in a protagonist that could be our eyes and ears. So while Emily is part of that world, she’s emotionally someone we can champion to wage battle against the one percent. The show aired at a time when our country was culturally and economically in a divisive state. Fear drives a lot of this show; it’s what motivates our characters. Victoria Grayson, in particular, is a sympathetic character; she fiercely wants to protect her children and the security she has built around her. In terms of Emily’s takedowns [of other characters], the rule of thumb is that the punishment has to fit the crime. She’s not going to throw someone off the roof for keying her car.
SMART SHOWS AREN’T JUST ON CABLE: The tone of Revenge is elusive and a tricky one to hit. … There’s tremendous competition from shows I’m a fan of such as Boardwalk Empire and Homeland. Cable shows have a built-in advantage [with the TV Academy]: They’re not producing as many episodes as we produce. In some ways, the [drama Emmy] category isn’t equitable. Maybe they should break cable from broadcast because the challenges are different.
THE BEST SOCIOPATH IS THE GIRL NEXT DOOR: When I met Emily VanCamp, I knew instantly I wanted her to play the lead role of Emily Thorne [née Amanda Clarke]. There’s something acceptable about her, but then there’s something going on behind her eyes that’s rare. She’s smart, so connected emotionally and can access places quickly. She spent a better part of her career playing the every girl and that quality was important to me because you want Emily Thorne as your best friend, but at her core, she’s diabolical and in many ways a sociopath. The battle for Emily Thorne’s soul is so interesting because Emily VanCamp infuses her with a brand of humanity.