Mini-Review: Revenge


Revenge

One-hour drama

ABC, 2011-present

Sunday, 9 pm EST

Starring: Emily VanCamp, Madeleine Stowe, Gabriel Mann, Henry Czerny

Created by: Mike Kelley


Intellectually, I recognize “Revenge” as pure camp—the word is even in lead actress Emily VanCamp’s name, after all. The premise of a pretty, blonde twentysomething, with infinite income, who goes to the Hamptons to exact revenge on the people who conspired to put her father in prison for a crime he didn’t commit is so contrived that to call it anything other than camp is to suggest you don’t own a dictionary. Yet, for all its implausibility, “Revenge” is oddly—though perhaps not surprisingly—compelling. To build a show upon such an absurd scenario requires a certain awareness of the absurdity, and I would argue that “Revenge” playfully exploits the tropes of its genre, even as it commits to them. All of the characters verge on caricature, nearly every one a scheming, deceitful opportunist who cares for others only insofar as it will advance his or her own goals. Still, these exaggerated motivations are not unconvincing, nor are the actions that result: no doubt all of us have at one time or another wished we could respond as these privileged people do.

“Revenge” allows its viewers to indulge in fantasies both light and pitch-black. The opulence of the Hamptons, and life on the beach, is on full display, and it is impossible not to get a vicarious thrill out of observing the lavish parties and extravagant homes of the super-wealthy. So too is the backstabbing equally enticing. The gratification of well-executed retribution cannot be underestimated. “Revenge” appeals to our darker impulses, while occasionally reminding us of why we must resist acting on them. It’s a frothy, nighttime soap opera, but it still offers something the psyche needs.

Mini-Review: Gravity Falls

“Gravity Falls” may be a cartoon airing on the Disney Channel, but that doesn’t mean it’s not weird and wacky and wonderfully original. Much like “Phineas and Ferb,” it’s appealing to all ages, packed with clever gags and winning characters that can be more sophisticated than those on typical “kid” shows but are still quite accessible. The plot focuses on the adventures of Mabel and Dipper Pines, two tweens who are spending their summer in the mysterious Gravity Falls, Oregon. They live with their great uncle, or Grunkle, Stan, who runs a tourist trap of oddities called The Mystery Shack. Though their uncle’s business is clearly a scam, Mabel and Dipper soon discover that things in Gravity Falls really aren’t as they seem. Supernatural creatures appear to live in the forest, and seemingly normal inhabitants possess very unusual talents. The siblings quickly learn to trust in and rely on one another, and their bond deepens as they try to survive their bizarre new home. Though mostly a comedy, “Gravity Falls” does a good job of establishing an overarching mystery. Additionally, it is surprisingly heartwarming in its portrayal of Mabel and Dipper’s relationship. I appreciate some good whimsical escapism, and “Gravity Falls” certainly delivers. Any show that says it’s okay to bedazzle your face is fine by me.

On Recommendations and Top 5 Lists

Is it normal to watch “Phineas and Ferb” even when you’re at least 15 years older than its intended audience and not on any psychotropic drugs? I’m asking for a friend…who posed the question to me…in reference to me. But I think it’s something we all want to know. Is anyone’s taste completely “normal,” “acceptable,” and “genuinely not embarrassing at all”? Don’t we all have those little quirks, those differences in taste that, depending on how unshakeable our confidence is, make either us or our dissenters seem like the weird ones?

When it comes to talking about what I like—the movies, the TV shows, the defining songs of the summer—I don’t mind being an individual (or, okay, trailblazer if you must), but I tend to play it a little safe. It’s okay to say you enjoy something that has only a small cult following, or even something that is knowingly not very good, but it’s tough to stand up and admit that your addiction to ABC Family isn’t a passing fad, or an exception to any rule…that it defines who you are. I like to play off my stranger interests as if they are a lesser part of me, but the truth is that if I really were to give an honest recommendation or to compose an accurate top multiple-of-five list, I’d have to include a lot of stuff that doesn’t come with a “critically acclaimed” label. (Note to self: Start sewing “critically acclaimed” labels into all my pairs of underwear. Sounds hilarious and not lame at all.)

I don’t like being dishonest or misrepresenting myself, but it’s a delicate dance between forging a stronger connection with someone (I assume this is what engaging in a Ron Swanson quote-a-thon is called) and opening yourself up to ridicule (also known as admitting in public that you even know what “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” is). Usually I tend to freeze up, caught in that purgatory between what I perceive to be the expected answer and what I feel to be the truth. This is why, when it comes to recommending pretty much anything, I am completely terrified. Will this be the time that I am finally reprimanded for liking all the wrong things? (Or, worse yet, all the obvious things?)

I worry that I’m never equipped with the right tools for evaluation. Am I not sophisticated enough to notice how jejune that movie is? Am I too pretentious to realize that book has no substance? (And, on a side note, am I even pronouncing jejune correctly? Kind of French-y and with utter contempt?) Don’t get me wrong: I’m comfortable with the things I like when I’m by myself or surrounded by the people who revere me…but I tend to panic when I have to share an actual opinion with people who haven’t formed an actual opinion of me yet.

Say, for example, I work at a library. (I do, so this should be easy.) Say someone walks in and asks me to recommend a book to read this summer. (This never happens. No one cares.) I’m not one of those people who can confidently say, “Well, gosh, stranger, I just read the new James Patterson and it was pretty swell.” (Or, if the person walks in wearing a beret or playing a ukulele or something, “Hey there, how about the new Dave Eggers?”) I need more information on this individual before I can even consider sharing something about me. Does she look smart? Is she wearing glasses? I had better not mention that I sometimes like to read The Lying Game books. Does he look like he wandered in here on a dare from his fraternity brothers? I’m going to look like an ass if I spend any time extolling the virtues of that Nathaniel Hawthorne biography. (Is a bro-ography a thing? I would recommend that.) I’ve witnessed real people (not holograms—that’s something you need to check for these days) offer real opinions as if it were nothing. I have no idea how they do it.

Real, for me, tends to be a fluid concept. (See: seven of my past nine boyfriends.) Sometimes what I think is real is actually just what I am willing to reveal of myself in a given context. Conversely, sometimes such limitations are not based on how “Cathy”-cartoon neurotic I am, but rather how thoughtfully I want to respond to another person’s needs. (Okay, this is still neurotic, I guess. Ack!) I hate to recommend books that I liked when I’m not so sure that the person I am recommending them to will like them as well. It’s not always easy to see where tastes overlap and where they diverge; seemingly similar people may like some of the same things for very different reasons. Thus, if someone asks me for the best book I read recently, I can’t necessarily give the most honest answer. …Can I? Is that really what people want when they ask for a recommendation? Even if it would mean their slogging through, say, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which is either an amazing book or just a handy weapon depending on your taste?

Despite my skepticism, I actually read a lot of lists with “Top,” “Best of,” and “That Will Change Your Life” in the title. (I also read a lot of lists with “Bottom,” “Worst of,” and “That Are Killing You” in the title because I am kind of a pessimist.) Although I don’t always agree with these lists, I usually don’t feel betrayed or think less of the person who wrote them. That is, I can recognize and accept differences of opinion when it comes to someone else. I sometimes try to think of the lists I would create given the same criteria to fulfill. I’m never 100% honest. I wonder why I even assume honesty should be the goal.

When I reflect on it, I realize that nobody considers me an authority on anything, so I shouldn’t stress too much about how well I’m recommending things. I’m sure my own mother would take my report on the weather outside with a grain of salt, so I can’t really stress if my top five best YA books are a confusing muddle of what I really really like and what I think is most likely to endure.* And honesty—complete honesty—isn’t necessarily the best tool in an evaluation. (In some ways it’s lazy, ignoring so many other factors in order to privilege the half-formed opinions of a girl still wary of using the oven). I can still always hold back when I want to impress.

So that just leaves one final question, one conundrum to resolve: Seriously, is it okay that I’m watching “Phineas and Ferb” at 25 years old?

*My list includes Feed by M.T. Anderson; Going Bovine by Libba Bray; Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork; Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King; and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, if you were wondering.

TV Shows I Broke Up With This Year

IT’S NOT YOU,

IT’S ME.

When it comes to television, I am actually very loyal. I stick it out; I hope for the best. I keep watching a show long after any initial disappointment because I remember what drew me to it in the first place. (Case in point: “The Killing.”) I am not one of those fickle viewers who chronically flip through channels, sated by any half-engaging show they find. For the most part, I watch TV only when a particular show is on, and I turn it off once that show is over. This is not to say that I am a sophisticated television viewer, or that I’m concerned with such an issue, or even that I see any real value in becoming dedicated to a show. (Actually, if “Arrested Development,” “Veronica Mars,” and “Pushing Daisies” have taught me anything, it’s probably just a recipe for heartbreak.) I simply want to acknowledge that that is how I watch TV, and that, as a result, it feels like a much bigger deal when I finally resolve to stop watching a program.

If I’m completely honest, I’ll admit that there aren’t that many shows that I get excited over anymore. My favorite shows right now are all sitcoms, I think, which seems wrong, somehow, as if I am barring myself from any vicarious emotional growth. I used to watch shows like “Friday Night Lights” and “Lost,” but they’ve been off the air for a little while now. My once favorite genre, the dramedy, appears to have died sometime in the mid-aughts. I’m practically starved for hour-long programs when only a few years ago this was the format for most of my preferred shows. In short, I don’t think this is necessarily a great time to be watching TV, but there are still many great TV shows currently on the air.

(I should point out that I am mostly focusing on the major networks: CBS, FOX, ABC, and NBC. There are a lot of great shows, no doubt, on channels like HBO and Showtime, but I’m not a subscriber. I’m also a fan of AMC shows like “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead,” but I’m still catching up on Netflix. And I think that, sadly, ABC Family is not pertinent to this discussion.)

I tried to get into a lot of new shows this year, to maintain my relationship with others, and to try out some shows that have been on for a while but which I had never seen. Inevitably, however, I ended up dropping some of the shows that I had hoped would become or remain staples of my weekly viewing schedule. This is their story.

It seems blasphemous, but this was the year I gave up “Modern Family” once and for all. I had stuck around for a little while out of my fondness for Manny, Sofia Vergara’s boobs, and silent baby Lily, but this season I found I just didn’t care anymore. The characters I had liked before either weren’t that likable anymore or had just gotten stale (and Lily was a different Lily—and she spoke!). The antics felt like tired retreads that only highlighted how closely the show adheres to a formula. I realized that while I may still get a laugh out of “Modern Family,” I no longer enjoy it. I don’t enjoy how it pretends to subvert the traditional sitcom while actually being a very traditional sitcom. I don’t like how everything feels like a tidy lesson about family and togetherness. Maybe I’m just frustrated because “Modern Family” seems to get all the accolades while there are plenty of other comedies out there that are, I would argue, much funnier and much more inventive. I don’t know—but I do know that I no longer feel any pull toward this show. When I miss an episode, simply put, I don’t feel that I actually miss it.

Perhaps even more blasphemous is how I am now treating “How I Met Your Mother,” a show I not only watched regularly for several years, but which I also championed to friends and family. Once upon a time, “How I Met Your Mother” was my go-to example for a sitcom that was both accessible and smart. Although it adhered to many common sitcom tropes, it also turned them on their heads; it manipulated time and expectations in a way that privileged storytelling over mere jokes. I liked “How I Met Your Mother” both for its characters and its ability to consistently surprise me. Perhaps that is the very reason why I now feel so over it. To put it bluntly, the show is past its prime. I’m not necessarily suggesting that it can no longer deliver the laughs, drama, or tender moments, but I am positing that the fundamental premise no longer works. The framing device of Ted telling his children the story of how he met their mother is now laughable: to stretch the series over as many seasons as it has had, this has necessitated numerous red herrings, tangents and false starts. The characters, as a result, are equally stretched thin; though they grow, it is at a snail’s pace, their development too wrapped up in the show’s own fate. The longer the show goes on, the less of its original charm it retains. At this point, I just wish Ted would get to the point already; since I know he probably won’t, I’ve decided to stop waiting around for him.

Of all of the shows I stopped watching, “Up All Night” is the one with which I have the least history, by virtue of its premiering only this year. Despite this fact, it took me a while to admit that I just don’t like it very much. There’s nothing actually wrong with the show, and quite a lot to like, to be fair. It’s one of the few shows that can pull off having a baby as a central character (though not as well as “Raising Hope”). Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph are great, and I’ve long loved Will Arnett. Part of the problem might be that I just can’t relate to the central experience, that of having a baby—but I think that’s ultimately a cop-out. I have trouble pinpointing the problem, but I think it might have something to do with main characters who are  just a little too bland as a pair. Applegate’s Reagan and Arnett’s Chris approximate people you actually know, and as a result aren’t that interesting. Of course, maybe the problem is that I’m secretly hoping for Arnett’s inner Gob Bluth to break free—less diaper-changing, more chicken-clapping. Whatever the reason, “Up All Night,” despite its title, is more likely to put me to sleep.

Why You Think You’re Too Good for “The Vampire Diaries”…and Why You’re Wrong

You think you’re too good for “The Vampire Diaries.” I know you do. I know it because I was once you, so young and naive. So full of opinions on what is “good” television and why you couldn’t possibly watch something on the former WB, something so thoroughly overpopulated with ridiculously good-looking people. Your argument against it probably includes an offhand reference to Twilight,  a reminder that you’re not 13 years old, and some lame excuse that you have better things to do. Let’s face it—we both know you don’t. And really, you’re just fighting fate.

It’s true, “The Vampire Diaries” has one of the more absurd premises you’ve recently heard: feuding vampire brothers both fall for the same mortal high school girl—and, oh yeah, everybody keeps diaries and stuff. And, sure, all of the witches and werewolves and werewolf-vampire hybrids and doppelgängers take some getting used to. You’re probably wondering what’s so great about the protagonist, Elena Gilbert, aside from the fact that she has pretty hair and is deep, or whatever, because she hangs out at the cemetery to write in her diary. And you might spend a couple episodes getting into it, maybe because you’re continually distracted by doing Google image searches of Ian Somerhalder before he darkened his hair, back when he was on “Lost.” But once you get hooked, and you will get hooked—it will sneak up on you, like an evil, centuries-old vampire slyly hanging out at a high school dance, and sink its teeth into your helpless mortal neck—you won’t be able to resist. You’ll breeze through the existing 60 plus episodes in less than a month, which is totally not embarrassing, okay? Totally. Not. Embarrassing.

And you’ll quickly understand that even though this is a show about vampires and love and looking hot even when you’re dead, it’s not another Twilight. It’s not another “True Blood” for that matter, and not just because a random passerby won’t mistake it for soft-core porn. For one thing, it is thrillingly plot-driven, focused not only on longing looks between a mortal girl and the boys who want to eat her but also real life-and-death-(and-undeath) situations. Everyone is in peril, all the time, and the enemies just as often come from within as from without. Action is constant: former adversaries became allies, former friends become foes, and sometimes former cheerleaders become creatures of the night who want to drain you of blood. Every episode is a roller coaster ride. Make that a roller coaster ride in the dark: you can never see what’s coming.

The first episodes set up a dramatic arc that a sane person—or, at least, someone not addicted to amphetamines—would assume could be resolved only over the course of a season (maybe more if your head writer is Veena Sud from”The Killing”). After all, Elena (Nina Dobrev) will need time to fall head-over-heels in love with vampire Stefan (Paul Wesley) before learning he’s a full-fledged, full-fanged predator, right? Well, since this is still a teen show we are talking about, and since, for fictional teens, a reasonably good first date will invariably result in the two protagonists proclaiming that they would die for each other, of course not. Elena quickly learns that Stefan is a vampire, and that he has an evil (but hot) vampire brother, but she decides she’s totally okay with it. Suddenly, it’s the two of them against the world, first taking on Stefan’s evil-but-hot (don’t forget hot!) brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder), but then moving on to even greater threats.

Basically, on “The Vampire Diaries” one scary villain has an even scarier villain behind him or her. Without giving away too much of the plot, I will mention that Damon is remaining in their hometown of Mystic Falls for a very specific reason, and that it has something to do with a vampire even more powerful (and treacherous) than he is. This person, in turn, has been on the run from an even more powerful vampire. And so on, and so forth. The plot twists are manifold, the mythology endless. A new mystery develops at every turn, forever feeding the addiction to find out what happens next. I was up to four episodes a day of this show when I watched the first two seasons on Netflix. That’s not an embarrassing personal failure—that’s just science. Don’t think this won’t happen to you. You’re smug, but so, so stupid.

So, to recap, you are not better than “The Vampire Diaries.” You may think you are, but try watching a few episodes and then giving up cold turkey. What’s that, you just found out about the secretive council of founding families that knows there are vampires living in their town? Oh, now you just discovered that Stefan and Damon’s former love, Katherine Pierce, looks exactly like Elena? Good luck trying to stop thinking about that while you go about your boring everyday duties like grocery shopping and explaining that your favorite tv shows are “Downton Abbey” and the news.

…I’m prettty sure everyone knows what “‘Downton Abbey’ and the news” is a euphemism for. You only wish Dame Maggie Smith were a centuries-old vampire…instead of, you know, just centuries old.

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