Thursday, September 29, 2011

Give Us Someone to Root For

So I've been watching the show "Revenge" on ABC. The second episode aired last night, and I have to say, though it looked preposterously stupid from the advertisements, I've been pleasantly surprised at the high level of storytelling going on. And the acting ain't half bad either. There's only one problem: everyone sucks.

Let me explain.

The premise is simple: twenty or so years ago, a little girl named Amanda Clarke, who lived an idyllic life couched in the lap of Hampton's luxury, watched as the feds raided their beachfront home and dragged her father to jail. He was hung out to dry by powerful friends, dying a solitary death in prison. Now, his grown-up little girl, who re-named herself Emily Thorne (an excellent Emily VanCamp), has returned to the Hamptons to exact revenge on the gang of super-wealthy elites who robbed her of her father.

Her dad left her a fortune somehow or other (details are slowly being revealed each episode), and she's just closed on a beach house situated next door to the richest of the rich, the queen bee-ist of the queen bees of Hamptons society, Victoria Grayson (a steely Madeleine Stowe). All sorts of strange and slick characters cross in and out of Emily's days in the beachfront town, most of whom are on her blacklist. At least once per episode so far, she has begun destroying her enemies in spectacular fashion.

The only problem I have with the show (besides the fact that we don't really have time to become acquainted with characters before she starts ruining their lives (an exigency required by TV audience attention-spans no doubt)) is that there's no one to root for. We see all of the town's residents--nice and swarthy alike--as Emily sees them: as chess pieces to be manipulated.

You want Emily to get her revenge on the mega-billionaires, of course, because we all want to watch billionaires squirm a little these days. And added to that, they threw her dad under about five double-decker buses. And sure, it would be nice if she and the little boy she used to pal around with as a kid who grew up to be an honest, blue collar restaurant owner's son (Nick Wechsler) got together, and if the guy could save his dad's restaurant from bankruptcy.

But honestly, I hate just about everyone on the show.

And this brings up an important lesson for writers. You can do anything you want, it's a free country, but when I'm reading a book, I need someone to root for. I have to like them, and my values have to be aligned with theirs on some level, and they have to be fairly central to the book/story.

Otherwise, why am I reading the book? I don't think I have much to learn much from, say, oh I don't know, a person hell-bent on excoriating everyone who ever looked at her the wrong way. It's the same question I'm asking right now about "Revenge": do I really, in the end, care if this woman ruins a bunch of people's lives and careers? It won't bring her dad back, and it will probably feel hollow to her, having wreaked so much havoc. Or maybe not, but should she be admired if she actually enjoys stepping on people's jugulars?

Part of what the producers are banking on, I'm guessing, is that people are so sick of Wall Street that they'll love watching investment bankers and high-society floozies get what's coming to them. Meh. I don't obsess about the idiots in the Battery any more than I obsess about an asteroid someday hitting the Earth. Sure, I hate them on the same level, but whatever.

At any rate, my advice to you is to not make your main characters so destructive that they have very little room for humanity. Emily looked on as a group of bullies eviscerated her father. I wish she'd grown up to found a charity in her father's name and tried to make his legacy a positive one. I know that doesn't make for riveting drama, but at least I could get behind her motives.


  1. Very good point. I haven't seen the show, but I was curious. I think it sounds like Dexter to me. Not so much that she's murdering anyone, but that I couldn't get into the character of Dexter. He just made me dislike him and not even care if he got the other bad guy.

  2. Maybe it's a sign of the times we live in that ABC would gamble on so heavily promoting a show about an anti-hero. I never even bothered watching Dexter--it sounded too twisted for my tastes (though I loved Michael C. Hall in "Six Feet Under"). You're right, at a certain point, if you present a character who, even in her/his private moments, is inaccessible emotionally, it's hard to invest in the character.

    Thanks for your comment!