I watched a DVD of “Revenge” kind of by mistake. I didn’t really understand that it wasn’t “English” Edwardian melodrama but rather “French” as interpreted by Hollywood. That is, a cross between “Dallas” and “All My Children” claiming the status of Guy de Maupassant (another victim of lethal syphilis) which justifies a lot of “high culture” philosophical rambling about 19th century categories of motivation in a time that was constant war. That is, the concept is class-based and family-based in the English manner but with a guillotine always lurking in the background, the Hamptons instead of the French Riviera. Reference the post about Napoleon, esp. Napoleon III.
The vulnerable but deeply evil dark person is not Erica Kane this time, but rather a version of her by Madeleine Stowe, who used to portray innocent girls, upholding the tradition of the un-killable brunette witch who always has a blonde bookend for an opponent. With “Dallas” hovering in the background, they are just barely short of “camp.” Reports claim there is to be a Turkish version (they’re secular) now in preparation, to be called “Intikam.” The sets, near-temples full of reclinable surfaces, do have a kind of Ottoman Empire feel to them when they don’t echo like airports. They must require institutional level housecleaning, floor-polishing waxers, etc.
One can tell that Emily VanKamp is going to be an empowered Ninja justice-mete-outer because she has a good strong blade of a nose. She also has a set of gizmos worthy of James Bond: a lock pick woven into her sweater, another one set into her impressive heirloom wristwatch. The whole show is riddled with smart phones, flat screens, spy cameras, image on image on image on message. Mirrors for narcissists. The McGuffin is a wooden box of photos and documents relating to the heroine's murdered father.
The charge to the writers is to create a steady audience of people 19 to 34 and to sell them things: mostly clothes, booze, and electronics. My fav character so far (aside from the dog) is Gabriel Mann, the bisexual cyber genius who is evidently a little too old and sensible for “Emily.” She likes two curly-mouthed dark and unformed boys who haven’t quite separated from their mothers. One shaves and the other doesn’t or I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Speaking of mothers, Emily’s mother is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Say no more.
These scripts are always reflections of what the writers know or imagine rather than any kind of broad-based understanding of the many layers and countervailing forces in American culture, much less human development. Today I watched a TED.com series called “Brave Neuro World.” (Available on Netflix.) It’s a good “can-opener.” Mostly the characters invented for the "Revenge" series are people with emotions arrested by trauma when they were eight years old, so that their emotional lives are always intense, unsatisfying, longing for missing parents, and riddled with perceived danger. They always feel as though they must deal with everything themselves, so control is a main motivator. They find it impossible to trust anyone. They are primary school kids in a post-grad world enlarged and distorted by too much information -- too filtered, too morphed, too snarled -- until no one could really understand it. Soaps always have gnarly plots because the audience demands surprises.
But the characters are also adolescents with their constantly shifting eros and moral revisionism: yesterday’s enemy is today’s beloved. Their eros extends to death, especially idealistic sacrificial death, because death (and eros) are mythic, great surges of unreal forces. They don’t trust the adults and the script always confirms their opinions that adults are corrupt, inept, greedy, and just plain out of it.
International terrorism is only a plot device -- no reflection about why the phenomenon appears or what to do about it. Things are ripped from the headlines, not the long analysis that follows in the back pages or in magazines. These people who are supposed to be international financiers don’t read “The Economist.” They’re a funny mix of Republican values (get rich, maintain the status quo) and Democratic values (take care of the poor, save the environment). In short, they are sort of like college sophomores when it comes to the Big Picture. Smart aleck sentimentalists.
Maybe this accounts for the strange quality of shadows projected through the characters onto a moving wall -- grotesque distortions of what it is to be effective in a modern world with no limits on power and connections, but much exaggerated -- or is it? Maybe we’ve all come to hope that somewhere in today’s labyrinth of allegiances and happenstance is some kind of sensible progression of history. But the truth is that Progressivism was my grandparents’ world-view and I’m over seventy. I’ve spent my life hoping we could avoid nuclear war, but now we begin to suspect that it’s the subtle whimpering of climate shift and fungal invasion and the oceans turning acid that will slide us, greased with preoccupation, into the past of the planet.
So why not enjoy the dance, get high, pretend everyone lives at the beach and falls madly in love every day or so. Why not? Well -- someone’s got to wash the dishes for one thing. Balance the checkbook. So, just let me read one more chapter, Mom, and then I’ll do my homework. Except these days we’re watching a film, sprawled on the bed with the laptop on our knees and it’s one more 45 minute episode. You can’t pretend you have to watch or you’ll miss it, because a money-maker like this series is already immortal and even sometimes free. It’s a means, not an end.
You’ll have to scrounge around, resort to Netflix, to find “Margaret,” a realistic depiction of a young woman, non-ninja, wrestling with the morality of death. This time it’s a stranger who dies under the wheels of a bus and Margaret (Anna Paquin) holds her hand while the woman fades, thinking Margaret is her daughter. Earnest and idealistic Margaret, attending a realistic (sorta) upper-class school where the teachers are as indulgent and familiar as middle-aged movie stars (because that’s who plays them) and the students are formidably intelligent and politically sophisticated, has a hard time finding her moral footing. Is the death Margaret’s fault? (Isn’t everything?) Is it the bus-driver’s fault?