'Revenge' done right: Emily Van Camp (left, with Gabriel Mann) is key to a stone-cold hit.
'Revenge' done right: Emily Van Camp (left, with Gabriel Mann) is key to a stone-cold hit. Colleen Hayes/ABC
For those who like to claim (loudly, and with great relish) that Hollywood is utterly devoid of original ideas, the new television season has been a waking nightmare. As has already been noted — rather often — by those who note such things, a number of shows that have premiered since September (or are set to debut) seem to build from the same concepts.
There's been The Playboy Club (already canceled) and Pan Am, both set in the '60s and centered around women in what the creators claim to be girl-on-the-go glamour jobs and the men who harassed them. Grimm and Once Upon A Time, each of which ask the question, "What if fairy tales were real and living among us in a world where nobody has read Fables?" And an imagined crisis of masculinity spawned a troika of sitcoms: How To Be A Gentleman (also already canceled), Man Up! and Last Man Standing.
The similarities in the above shows were superficial enough to be evident from the start. But then there's ABC's Revenge (airing Wednesdays at 10:00) and the CW's Ringer (Tuesdays at 9:00). The basic conceits of each are different enough: The former concerns Emily (Emily Van Camp) wreaking havoc on a Hamptons crowd that framed her father for treason, while the latter centers on former stripper/recovering addict Bridget (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who poses as her not-as-dead-as-she-thinks Gotham socialite twin Siobhan to evade gangsters and the FBI. So the fact that the shows are actually cut from the same cloth only became clear as they each unfolded.
But they do indeed have a great deal in common. Both shows are soapy suspense pieces centered around women with disguised identities infiltrating a playground for the rich, playing off the tension between the haves and have-nots. And not for nothing, but both shows are headlined by golden girls of the former WB network (Everwood's Van Camp and Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Gellar). So why is Revenge working while Ringer grinds its gears?
For one thing, the story on Revenge doesn't have such a tight focus. Ringer's characters don't seem to have much of an existence except insofar as it's related to Bridget/Siobhan. Characters with independent relationships have little to say that's not about one or the other of the twins. Even when the show cuts back to Wyoming, where criminals are torturing Bridget's Narcotics Anonymous sponsor for information, the only topic of concern is "Where's Bridget?" She's the Poochie of her own show.
That doesn't happen on Revenge. Instead of everybody exclusively wondering what Emily's up to at all times, the other characters have their own intrigues and relationships to flesh out. Queen bee Victoria (Madeleine Stowe) has her hands full with a philandering husband, a traitorous best friend and a daughter who — whoops! — just found out that her mother never wanted her. There are whole second locations, such as the bar run by dashing townies Jack (Nick Wechsler) and Declan (Connor Paolo), that exist entirely independently of Emily.
Revenge also has a confidence in itself that Ringer hasn't mustered yet. That's evident in the pace at which the story unfolds, which is breezy enough to absorb but zippy enough to make genuine progress. Ringer, meanwhile, chucked out an information dump in the first episode or two and has mostly spun its wheels ever since. Nowhere is that clearer than with Siobhan, who holed up in Paris after faking her death. While the most recent episode showed her to have ordered the (maybe) murder of her best friend, she's barely present in the story, often only appearing (if at all) at the very ends of episodes talking on the phone from her hotel room. There certainly aren't two parallel storylines, which means that if Gellar signed on for the challenge of playing dual characters, then she was conned.
The confidence gap between the two shows is also evident in the fact that Ringer takes itself extraordinarily seriously. None of the characters are having any fun at all. (In fact, it's hard to think of a single instance in seven episodes of anybody even smiling without the adverb "ruefully" hanging somewhere nearby.) Bridget is all desperation, on the run from cops and crooks alike and trying to prevent her sister's family and friends from uncovering her identity. Siobhan's husband's not having any fun. Siobhan's lover's not having any fun. Siobhan's spoiled teenaged stepdaughter's not having any fun. Even evil, manipulative Siobhan isn't having fun on her secret Gallic retreat.
That's not a problem on Revenge. Declan is having a grand time crossing class barriers to woo Victoria's daughter Charlie (Christa B. Allen), whose brother Daniel (Joshua Bowman) is pursuing Emily with a lightness that suggests that he likes liking her. It's hard to say that Emily herself is having fun, exactly, but she's certainly getting a bitter satisfaction bringing down her neighbors. Even the two shows' rebellious rich girls are a world apart. Ringer's Juliet (Zoey Deutch) is a dour, angry pill, while Charlie at least embraces her wastrelness with a self-immolating glee.
And not for nothing, but the characters on Ringer must be phenomenally stupid if they don't realize that their friend/wife/lover suddenly has an entirely new personality and absolutely no knowledge of their shared personal language, inside jokes or history. (To say nothing of the FBI agent who essentially says, "Oh, you say you're the identical twin of the person I'm engaged in a cross-country manhunt for? No further questions.")
Revenge flirts with this as well — as a child, Emily (then named Amanda) lived among the very people she's deceiving — but gets away with it not only by the tried-and-true Whoever-heard-of-an-adult-that-resembled-themselves-as-children? brushoff, but by allowing some of its characters to be suspicious of Emily, even if they're not yet entirely clear what it is they suspect Emily of.
It's that wink, that acknowledgement of how ridiculous the story being told could be if you poked too many holes in it, that's at the core of why Revenge works so well. As previously discussed in this space, the people behind the show know that it's camp and embrace it in a way that Ringer doesn't. Both shows have all the ingredients to be frothy, delicious fun. Only Revenge is putting them together properly.