Not just a pretty face: Revenge is pure, unadulterated telly gold

There is nothing better than a show about a beautiful woman on a single-minded killing spree to warm up a cold Monday night.

Most Mondays at about 8:57pm, I rest a cup of dark Yorkshire tea on top of whatever book is sitting on the rickety wooden stand by the sole armchair in my flat. I get my phone and I tweet the following: “When I was a child, my father was framed for a crime he didn't commit...” *knocks back thimble of Chambord Black Raspberry Liqueur* #Revenge”. The quote is not a dark and terrible window into my troubled past or vengeance-tinged future (this tale belongs to Emily Thorne aka Amanda Clarke). It is fictional. The beverage I mention in the "action asterisks" is not a random choice either, it is a sponsor – incidentally, I’d never heard of the brand even a year ago, but it’s apparently been around since the 17th century, so well done on getting into the general public’s line of vision. It is now irrevocably linked with a campy, soapy drama that I simply cannot afford to miss. Bravo, Chambord dudes!

All this to say: I really love Revenge.

Do you know what I’m talking about here? Revenge is the story of a beautiful young Emily Thorne, who comes back to the community she was forced out of after her father was framed for a terrible crime. Her targets are the wealthy inhabitants of a Hamptons town, all gathered around the nucleus of evil that is the Graysons, which is more or less run by evil-matriarch-in-a-bangade-dress Victoria. Emily returns with a waterfall of honey blonde hair, a fabulous fortune (natch), and the steely gaze (more on this later) of a woman with a plan. Her plan, meticulously plotted over the years is to take each player out one by one, crossing them off her list in the style of The Bride in Kill Bill. So far, so unoriginal. Yes, it’s basically a "re-imagining" (ah, Hollywoodese!) of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Throw in some adultery and secret cameras, shadowy allies and false identities, tailored clothing as worn by absurdly photogenic people in pretty locations, and you have televisual gold. It is camp, it looks gorgeous and as well as providing work for Amber Valletta and Madeleine Stowe, it has thrown up the striking image of James Purefoy without a shirt on. In other words, this is perfect viewing for cold Monday nights.

We are exhorted by (one of) The Good Books to basically “allow it, yeah?” when it comes to retribution. I mean, I paraphrase slightly; Romans 12:19 has it as “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord”, which is reassuringly straightforward in its simplicity. Even so, there is something everlastingly interesting and attractive to human beings about vengeance. Why leave it to the lord? He has a full plate. “This is not a story about forgiveness,” Emily’s voiceover intones darkly, directly ignoring her father’s wish that she build a good, revenge-free life away from the Hamptons (we have a handy stash of his diaries from which Emily gives us insights from time to time). It’s a struggle we all face from the time we are children: “do I push that little boy over for spilling my juice? Or shall I just walk away?” From the number of one-on-one parent-teacher conferences held in schools each year, it is safe to assume a good chunk of us go for the satisfaction of swift and terrible retribution. We love a bit of revenge. And while evidence suggests that only precious few other species exact revenge, we know for sure that no one looks as fabulous in a sheath dress while doing so. Not even chimps.

When I was a child, the way to signify that someone had something coming was to snap your fingers in their direction. If at all possible, this was to be followed by the long hiss of kissing teeth or a short, sharp nod. And here we come back to the steely gazes I mentioned up top. The biggest joy of Revenge is in the long, promise-laden looks the characters give another at every opportunity. Again, this is not new – every fan of the classic Dallas and Dynasty via The Bold and the Beautiful is aware of this trope. Revenge employs a number of the soap classics, from something that only ever happens onscreen, the "frenemy hug" i.e. the one where you start the embrace smiling, before slowly turning it into a narrow-eyed look of malice once out of view of your fellow hugger, to the hard, unblinking stare of dark scheming. It’s something E4 picked up on and used in a genuinely fun trail mid-season two: “Okay, you win. With the steely eyes,” drawls Nolan as Emily pins him with a look.

Revenge is far from perfect, and it has enough recycled ideas to fell a rhino – see its overpopulated (and spoiler-laden) page on TV Tropes for elucidation. In some ways, it is terribly traditional, both in terms of what it expects of its audience, and the way in which its main characters act: in these times of outsourcing, there is simply no need for Emily to get her hands this dirty. But it also has broad strokes of modernity: Emily is not just a pretty face. She shows up for every fight and kicks and punches her way out, all the while emitting guttural grunts of exertion. She’s a tough, savvy woman with moxie, old-fashioned gumption, even. And while there are shadowy men in the background of her power, she seems to be pulling as many strings of her own as she can, all the while yanking the chains of the Graysons.

I am in love with this show. It taxes precisely zero of my brain cells and gives me a more than proportional return of pleasure. Not many things can claim this dubious honour. Long live Revenge.

 

VanCamp's revenge-fuelled portrayal of Emily Thorne is fantastic.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism