Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of REVENGE

Previous Pilot Breakdowns:
Veronica Mars
The Office
Homicide: Life on the Street

Continuing our Pilot breakdowns, here's REVENGE, created by Mike Kelley. Original tweet thread is here.

I picked REVENGE because it's a good blend of a procedural within a serialized uber-arc. There's a pattern to every episode - Emily takes down a different person who wronged her father each week - but within a larger advancing story. As someone who rebels against that every new series needs to be "more of a 13 hour movie, really" I like a show that can tell a longer story and make its episodes feel like individual chapters. Also easier to get an audience jumping in if they miss the first few eps.

I also recently wrote a pilot that I'm loglining as "REVENGE meets 13 REASONS WHY so this feels like an easy and relevant breakdown for me to do.

The pilot starts with a trick we all hate, but we've all used. A scene set some time in the future with a dramatic climax, then a flashback so the series will now show us how we'll get here. To be honest, the first time I saw this, I felt like it was a weird start.

A gunshot on the beach. A body falls. In the distance, a Labor Day party in the Hamptons. Victoria Grayson's holding her "Fire and Ice Party" to celebrate her son Daniel's engagement to Emily Thorne. We meet Emily, establish its her party. Daniel's walking on the beach. NOLAN walks up to her: "You shouldn't be here." she says. "That makes two of us," he retorts.

We also see Victoria's daughter Charlotte, who gets her bf Declan out ont the beach. Jack is hiding right near the body, right where the two teens strip and hit the water. Emily dials a number, Jack's cell rings, alerts D & C, and when they investigate they find the body. (They REALLY want us to think it's Daniel who's dead.)

Meanwhile, Victoria is giving a very dramatic speech about how she approves of Emily. It's clear she doesn't like her much, and Emily's acting makes us think it's mutual. C's screams from the beach draw her mother who assumes the body is Daniel... and we flash 5 months back. Honestly, I think this is the kind of intro you do when you're foregrounding the mystery, but nearly ever character gets a better reintroduction later when we meet them in the past.

Demonstrating my point, Emily's buying a beachhouse. Flashback to her childhood shows us she lived her with her father. There's also a double-infinity symbol carved into the post. We see it had meaning for her and her father. This house also is within sight of Grayson Manor. Even without the flashforward, we can get from that scene that Emily's up to something, Grayson Manor is her target, and it relates to her father.

Re-introduce Victoria, checking out Emily's arrival from a distance while her husband Conrad takes care of work. Charlotte comes in and is busted by her parents for sneaking out. Dad tries to defend that "She got straight As" Victoria: "No one's accusing her of being stupid."

Now we meet the blue collar Porter boys, Jack, who's Emily's age and Declan, teenager. Ultra-rich Nolan offers to buy Jack's boat "Amanda." Jack doesn't want to sell, doesn't like Nolan much. Again, it's a lot of people to set up so you do what you can to get their POVs fast.

Case in point, we now see Victoria presiding over a meeting of all the Hamptons wives, prepping the Memorial Day party and charity auction. Exposit that her friend Lydia is going through a divorce. She owns the house that Emily's renting.

That was about 13 minutes to establish everyone. And with the execption of the opening, most of those scenes work as character beats more than plot beats. With an ensemble like this, you need to get us into the characters first - THEN set up their schemes.

Backstory time: Emily is watching old news footage of her father being convinced of funneling money to terrorists to took down a plane and killed 246 Americans. We also learn that her father worked for the Graysons. Flashback to the FBI raid of their house. Young Emily... who is called Amanda here... screams.

One person who testified against her father: Lydia. And Amanda has taken photos of Lydia having a tryst with Conrad, V's husband. Guess what, that's our ACT OUT! So we know what Emily's avenging, and we know who she's after.

Hotel room - Mid sexcapade with Lydia, Conrad has a heart attack.

Jack and Declan are working at their father's bar. A guy from the bank comes. We know that's usually not good. Charlotte and her friends come in, trying to buy drinks while underage. Declan busts them, so she offers her phone number.

Outside the hotel, Conrad is taken to an ambulance. Lydia looks concerned, and in a sneaky move, Emily runs up, "My god, is this your husband?" She offers to help. Great way to put Lydia on edge without being suspucious.

Emily sees Jack playing with his dog. Flashback reveals Jack and Emily/Amanda were friends as kids. She even recognizes the dog, Sammy. (How OLD is that dog?) Present-Jack is clearly taken with Emily, and doesn't seem to realize she's Amanda. Gotta build out the relationships

Victoria meets Conrad at the hospital. the Dr. mentions Conrad should stay away from the "spicy bisque" at the South Fork Inn. V's no idiot. She clocks why he was at the inn. Tells him "Don't do it again." ACT OUT.

I like the dynamic we see there.

ACT UP. Memorial Day party - Emily's friend and V's party planner guides Emily through the party, dropping exposition. Important stuff, Nolan's richer than all of them put together, and Daniel is a party boy who paralyzed a girl in a car crash last summer. If you're writing one of these shows, you end up writing a LOT of party scenes, so get used to juggling action here. That means giving people a lot of conflicting agendas and cross purposes. Find the conflict. Here's it's that Lydia is dodging Victoria, trying not to be exposed.

Emily is introduced to Victoria. E also says hi to Lydia, manages to say "We met yesterday at the South Fork Inn. I hope your husband's feeling better." Madeline Stowe does a FANTASTIC job of playing every emotion you expect as she processes that. And she does it silently.

That's another writing lesson. Way better than a "you fucked my husband" blow-up AND it builds tension. We KNOW Victoria isn't gonna let this slide and she seems like the type to make Lydia stew, terrified of how she'll get even.

Meanwhile, Emily "accidentally" spills a drink on Daniel to manufacture a meet-cute meeting. I should also mention that Emily VanCamp is good at playing every scene like a cat that's toying with a mouse. Really sharp at switching to dead eyes then putting the mask back on.

Victoria kicks off the art auction, saying Lydia won the art auction for her Van Gogh. That painting was a gift from Lydia. Message sent. She also announces Lydia will be selling, not renting her home. Another message sent. Stowe has a sweet/evil delivery on "I hope the Van Gogh is a constant reminder of the friendship we shared." Emily locks eyes on her with this. Daniel comes by to offer a drink, and we ACT OUT.

So Victoria is fully established as the Queen Bitch of the Hamptons, and we've seen Emily as the ruthless avenger eager to make her pay. First time I saw this I was like, "I can't wait to watch these two play chess against each other."

Conrad later tells Victoria she was cruel. Victoria says he could have had anyone, and he chose her best friend. he says he proved himself years ago. Victoria says, not without tears that she helped him destroy a man. Conrad says she did it to save herself.

Nolan/Jack subplot. Jack needs money for his father's bar, decides to sell to Nolan. Nolan goes through his pics from the party and clearly recognizes Emily.

Nolan is waitng for Emily when she comes home. "Welcome home Amanda." She manhandles him like someone trained in combat. He offers to help. She says, "You're not a part of this." He says he saw firsthand what these people did to her father. When she declines, he says "I can be just as powerful an enemy as any one of them." That was the line where I knew I liked Nolan.

Another flashback: teenage Amanda released from juvie, ten years after her father's arrest. Nolan is there to meet her, bringing the news that her dad died six years ago. he's got a box for her. Amanda thinks her father was a murderer and a liar. Nolan says he wasn't. The box has many journals and a lockbox for an account in Zurich. David invested in Nolan's company and Amanda is a 49% owner of it now. (Remember what I said about his wealth?) The journals tell the whole story of how David was framed.

David's VO says he wanted her to know the whole story and that she needs to forgive. Instead, she uses it as a roadmap for revenge. There's a picture she has of a company picnic. She makes a red X over Lydia's face.

"This is not a story about forgiveness." Emily's there to takedown EVERYONE who framed her father, especially the woman he loved who betrayed him. END PILOT with the two women staring across the beach at each other, Victoria in her house, calling someone to look into Emily Thorne.

Okay, that was harder than I expected because I forgot how plot heavy things get in there, but let's recap the important pipe that was laid:

Emily has come back to the Hamptons under an assumed identity. She's incredibly wealthy and the only person who knows the truth about her and her father is Nolan. She's there for payback and has a ton of info that can be used to destroy everyone complicit.

Victoria is the ultimate target, but she's also the queen of the Hamptons and incredibly formidable. She's not an oblvious dupe, nor is she a one-dimensional villain. This is important. Emily is cunning, almost Batman-like, and V is equally ruthless. If you're setting up an ongoing chess game between hero and villain, I don't want the villain to be some vapid dupe waiting for her turn. It also helps if she's got SOME humanity. That scene where we see regret about what they did to David is critical for this.

So what else? Well, Emily still seems to have feelings for Jack, her friend back when they were both 10 or so. Jack DEFINITELY is still somehow carrying a torch for her. Here's the angsty triangle: she loves Jack, but her mission requires wooing Daniel. Also, there's built-in conflict about how he'll react when he inevitably finds out "Amanda" has been back and lying to him the whole time. (The show later has a great story about someone assuming "Amanda's" identity coming back and falling for Jack)

Nolan is the bridge between this romance and the revenge uberplot. For whatever reason, he wants to befriend Jack. (he's Team Jemily for sure). As a tech genius, Nolan also fits the hacker every show needs. BUT I like he's not overtly geeky like every crime scene lab tech.

So we have:
Conflict: (E v V)
Romance: (J/E, E/D)
Secret Identity tension
Procedural element (weekly takedown)
Uber plot (All takedowns lead to V)
Opluant setting: Hamptons

Oh, and lets go over the mysteries the flash-forward gives us:

Who is the body on the beach?

Why is Jack near the body? Did he shoot the person?

Why are Emily and Nolan showing signs of tension?

How did Declan and Charlotte become an item? (okay, maybe we care less about that.)

If Daniel ISN'T dead, where is he?

(Like I said, I personally don't think you NEED that flash-forward. The rest of the pilot does a good job of laying all the pipe and putting balls in the air. But if you can raise questions your audience cares about, go for it.)

And I can't BELIEVE I forgot to mention this but REVENGE is a modern (very loose) adaptation of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. You can imagine "a modern TCoMC in the Hamptons" would work as a high-concept pitch. Also, public domain, folks.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed this pilot when it hit the air. Wasn't my type of show but I got sucked in!