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ABC’s Revenge: Are You Ready for Some Class Warfare?

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Earlier this week, President Obama put forward a deficit-reduction plan that, pointedly, involved raising taxes and closing loopholes for the wealthiest Americans. Republicans, as they often have when facing a proposal that picks on the richest, widely labeled the Obama plan “class warfare.”

I’m interested to see how this argument plays out politically, because I wonder whether “class warfare” is one of those buzzwords that has outlived its intended effects. I say this not to endorse one method or another of paying the government’s bills. But “class warfare” has a kind of 20th-century, cold war overtone, hinting of unions fomenting revolution or secret Bolsheviks in the WPA. Just from a populist standpoint, does “class warfare” have the same ring in 2011, after the mortgage crisis, the financial collapse of 2008, and the much-loathed bank bailouts? When people hear “class warfare” now, does it still sound like a bad thing? Or do they think: Cool! Break me off a piece of that!

Politically, we’ll be debating the answer for a while. More immediately, though, ABC is banking that audiences will find naked class warfare very, very appealing, in the form of its tastily venomous new soap, Revenge.

To be clear, Revenge is not simply, or even mainly, a story about poor people against rich people. But judging by the first two episodes, it’s definitely constructed as a kind of wish-fulfillment anthology of Bad Things Happening to Fortunate People. In this case, the bad things are perpetrated on a clique of Hamptons wealthy by a woman who is one of them—or at least was, and still has some of their resources.

The wonderfully named Emily Thorne (Emily Van Camp, Everwood) lived in this wealthy community as a little girl, when her father was hauled off to prison as a result of a frame-up job by several of his wealthy neighbors. Seventeen years later, she’s shown up again with an assumed identity, the resources to rent a lovely beach house and a long list of targets for… well, you read the title of the show. Chief among them is Madeleine Stowe’s Victoria Grayson—creator Mike Kelley, of Swingtown, has clearly read his Soap Opera Character Naming Guide—the grand dame of the swanky community and a prime mover in Emily’s father’s destruction. Armed with a sweet smile and a hidden ally, she sets about ruining her former neighbors, one at a time.

Key in how well this all plays out is Van Camp, who manages to convey at once how her neighbors see her—an attractive, well-bred, harmless girl next door—while showing the viewer the invisible gears of justice turning behind her forehead. The show also gets characteristically good work from Stowe as well as several supporting players, all of whom know they’re in a soap and act like it but manage to invest their characters with enough humanity to make them distinctive and believable (a trick that better primetime soaps like The O.C. pulled off).

Revenge, probably savvily, hasn’t sold itself as a class-conflict story or put that element up front—the central story is more an updated Count of Monte Cristo. TV shows that are blatantly about “What’s going on in the economy” (ABC’s Hank or this season’s Work It) are rarely very good or very successful.

But this season we are seeing some shows that play on money and class issues without overplaying them; 2 Broke Girls, for instance, had a strong debut (even accounting for a boost from the massive Two and a Half Men premiere). And in Revenge works in class conflict in the grand soap tradition. Along with Emily’s story are subplots involving some of the Hamptons townies and their run-ins with the swells. (One teen, whose dad runs a local tavern, gets beaten up by rich kids for flirting above his station. When his dad says his attackers will “get what’s coming to them,” he says, “They’ll get cars and girls and more money than they know how to spend.”) Emily’s rich neighbors aren’t universally villains, but the show does create a target-rich environment of polo players and stock traders to fill out her To Do list.

I’ve seen two episodes, and what gives Revenge the potential to last as an ongoing series (after all, doesn’t Emily have to run out of victims?) is the well-drawn characters and the sense that Emily does have a conscience beyond the desire for payback. Maybe Emily herself does not have the appetite for endless class war. But this one promises to be fun while it lasts.

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