I’ve never been a fan of soap operas, but a very soapy new primetime drama, ABC’s “Revenge,” has been a lock on my DVR this fall.
“Revenge” is the title, philosophy, and practice of this weekly guilty pleasure. The story features a young woman, Emily Thorne (played by Emily VanCamp), who mysteriously appears in the Hamptons, New York’s refuge for the ultra wealthy.
Emily is not who she says she is. She’s really Amanda Clarke, and years ago, when Amanda was still a girl, her rich, cutthroat neighbors framed her father for a horrific act of terrorism and essentially destroyed their lives. Emily/Amanda now has returned home to exact revenge on them, in brutally cool and calculated ways. (“Revenge” is said to be loosely patterned after Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, but believe me, you don’t have to be familiar with the book to get into the show!)
Each new episode features intrigue, manipulation, and carefully planned acts of payback. It also highlights an ongoing cat fight, nay, death battle of the tigresses, between Emily and leading Hamptons socialite Victoria Grayson (played by Madeleine Stowe), a key operative in her father’s disgrace and demise.
This could be a giant recipe for an early series cancellation but for the pitch perfect performances by the lead actresses. VanCamp is the ideal cold-blooded avenger masquerading as the sharp, pretty, sweetheart-next-door. Stowe pulls off her Ice Queen of the Hamptons role — one that easily could become a caricature in the hands of a less-gifted performer — with just the right touch. And when Emily and Victoria are in the same room, well, if looks could kill…
Revenge vs. schadenfreude
Are fans of “Revenge” frustrated avengers pining for a chance to inflict payback on those who have hurt them? If so, then there are millions of us waiting in the wings.
Fortunately, I don’t think this is the case. It boils down to the difference between exacting revenge — i.e., taking an active part in the retribution — and experiencing schadenfreude, the German loanword defined as deriving joy or satisfaction from another’s misfortune. The former involves planning and participation, while the latter represents an emotional response.
For some, a successful act of revenge can result in schadenfreude. For others, schadenfreude is more comfortably experienced as the result of a misfortune visited upon someone by another party or initiative.
I believe that most viewers enjoy “Revenge” because it allows us to revel in a fictional version of the latter variety. After all, cutting through the soap, “Revenge” reminds us that plotting real-life payback easily becomes an all-consuming and blackhearted passion. It often requires the same overheated emotion as the act that inspired it, not to mention a heckuva lot of care and attention to detail if one does not want to get caught.
Furthermore, the vast majority recognize that carrying an unyielding need for vengeance can be a dark, heavy, and unhealthy burden. Even if we struggle to forgive our trespassers, we nevertheless understand the personal costs of devoting ourselves to visiting retribution upon them.
And yet, “Revenge” may satisfy some inner craving for schadenfreude, which allows us to eat our cake but not have to answer for the calories. When one of Emily’s brilliantly designed acts of payback succeeds, it’s hard not to say, hah hah, gotcha!
Workplace revenge fantasies
No doubt that when some viewers are relishing Emily’s latest success, they’re thinking about specific bosses or co-workers who treated them poorly or unfairly.
Indeed, some of the “bad boss” books that I’ve paged through over the years are full of revenge fantasies, imagined and realized. People construct, and occasionally act out, these fantasies because they lack the power to use organizational resources to make things right. And when institutions do not embrace fairness and accountability, those on the receiving end of perceived injustices are left to their own devices and coping skills.
These are no trifling concerns, as I hope this blog has demonstrated. Perceptions of organizational justice impact productivity and individual well-being. Careers, livelihoods, and paychecks are at stake, not to mention personal health and dignity.
“Revenge” doesn’t get into the institutional ripple effects; it’s all personal, either in-your-face or behind-your-back. Ultimately, it isn’t psychologically deep enough to teach us anything more profound than the costs of being obsessed with retribution. But that in itself is a valuable lesson, and it’s delivered in marvelously entertaining fashion to boot.
Go here to watch full episodes of “Revenge.”