Congratulations, Madeleine Stowe! You make everyone else in any prime-time network drama look like a toothless simpering puddle of bunny drivel! As the fearsome Hamptons-socialite villainess on ABC’s Revenge, she’s easily the kickiest thing on the season’s kickiest new show, living up to all the sudsy melodramatics with her psycho eye-steam and menacingly husky voice. While Jessica Lange was getting all the attention on American Horror Story, Stowe is the movie star who’s been redefining herself as TV’s scariest hell-on-heels matriarch. She has more bitch-please glares than Imelda Marcos had shoes.
Stowe is the most lurid delight in a show packed with them. Revenge is a shameless soap in the style of Eighties shoulder-pad slap-offs like Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest. Yet there’s no wink-wink camp. Revenge goes for all-out hostility, in a Hamptons never-never land where evil aristo- crats flounce around and trade quips like “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I smell the distinct aroma of retribution in the air.”
The premise is simple: The revenger is the new girl in town, heiress-in-disguise Emily Thorne, out to destroy the re- vengee, Stowe’s Victoria Grayson. Seventeen years ago, Victoria had Emily’s daddy framed and imprisoned. (After banging him, needless to say.) She also got poor little Emily locked in the nuthouse. But Emily has returned, plotting elaborate vengeance against everyone who’s done her wrong. She lifted her fake identity from her cellmate in the psycho ward, Don Draper-style. (Gosh, hope the cellmate doesn’t come back as a blackmailing stripper!) She insinuates herself into the polo-playing Hamptons set, which naturally means she seduces one of them. So far, so Lifetime Movie Network.
The idea that rich people de-erve to be tortured isn’t tied to the current economic crisis – soap fans always like seeing rich folks suffer. But a sadistic rage pulses through Revenge, giving it a delectably nasty edge. Emily might have the moral high ground, but she isn’t squeamish about crushing her enemies in spectacular ways.(It looks like this chick got locked up for excellent reasons.) Still, part of the fun is how chimp-shit crazy the alleged heroine is; she always looks like she’s about 30 seconds away from spinning on one heel and snarling, “Which one of you bitches is my mother?”
It’s supposed to be based on The Count of Monte Cristo, but come on – this is hardcore pulp glitz and proud of it. Even Victoria Grayson’s name is a clever Dallas reference. (Victoria Principal’s Pam had an epic affair with mustachioed stud Mark Grayson, and don’t think for a minute that’s a coincidence.) Revenge is full of echoes like that; it plays with Dallas and Dynasty the way the Black Keys play with the Stones and Muddy Waters. I mean, we’re still in the first season and we’ve already got an amnesia subplot.
Emily VanCamp is a bit of a cipher in the lead role. Even though we’re supposed to be rooting for her, do we really care about her? No. Stowe walks away with every scene. When she finds out her best friend is sleeping with her husband, Stowe bitches her out: “Every time I hug you, the warmth you feel is my hatred burning through.” But Stowe doesn’t deliver these lines as camp – her steady nerves are chilling. She makes Victoria complicated. She knows she’s guilty. She destroyed the man she loved (Emily’s father) and she’s certain revenge is coming. But she plans to make the payback as gory as possible.
Stowe has to be feeling a little revenge-hunger of her own. She never got her due as a movie star; for every flick like 12 Monkeys she had to tough her way through unbelievable dreck, like the Western Bad Girls. In the final showdown, Stowe’s enemy runs out of ammo. She tosses him a bullet and barks, “Pick it up, put it in, and die like a man!” It takes a specific kind of ferocious to hold your head high in a cheesy movie like that. But judging by Revenge, a few years in career limbo have just made Stowe meaner, hungrier and more ferocious.
This story is from the January 19, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.