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'Revenge' helps ABC clean up with soap operas

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By Neal Justin
Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 9:29 p.m.

In “Revenge,” Emily VanCamp has vanquished a scheming shrink, a lustful lawyer and a malicious mistress. But on a sunny afternoon at Manhattan Beach Studios, the actress found herself battling a peskier villain: the common cold.

“Due to her condition, Ms. VanCamp will not be shaking hands today,” a publicist warned moments before a visit to the show's set.

It's just as well. VanCamp may look like a delicate creature while quietly and gamely answering questions at the foot of a fake staircase, but her character, Amanda Clarke, is a force to be reckoned with — an ultimate fighting machine hell-bent on getting back at the socialites who framed her father for a crime he didn't commit.

Her scheming ways — trading identities with a stripper, filming a sex tape, poisoning a cheating husband's bisque, getting engaged to her worst enemy's son — are a big reason “Revenge” was ABC's biggest Wednesday-night drama since the 2006-07 season of “Lost,” drawing a weekly audience of more than 8.5 million viewers who giggled and gasped at the over-the-top antics and unpredictable twists.

“She's taking down some pretty horrendous people,” said VanCamp, who previously starred in “Everwood,” a much gentler drama. “I think viewers like living vicariously through her.”

No one is pretending this is “Masterpiece Theatre.”

“Revenge” is full of preposterous scenarios and cheesy lines. In the season finale, Nolan Ross, Amanda's tech-wiz accomplice, begged her by phone to “not do anything revenge-y until I get there.”

“Our tongues are planted in cheek, but not firmly,” said Gabriel Mann, who plays Nolan.

It's an approach that might not wow critics — the show didn't earn any major Emmy nods in its first season — but it draws fans who long for the kind of ridiculous, broad dramas that dominated the small screen in the 1980s and '90s.

The genre fell out of favor when copycats of “Dallas” and “Beverly Hills 90210” failed to catch fire.

“If they had been good, maybe prime-time soaps would have had a more continuous period,” said Roger Newcomb, founder of the 5-year-old website “Instead they limped to the finish and for a few years there was nothing.”

That all changed in 2004, when the struggling ABC network took a chance on “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey's Anatomy.” Since that gamble, ABC has killed off daytime soaps, but filled its prime-time lineups with serialized shows including “Private Practice,” “Scandal” and “Once Upon a Time.”

“'Soap' is not a bad word for me. I'm proud of it,” said ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee, who got his start working as an assistant producer on a Brazilian soap opera. “I feel that shows like ‘Revenge' have made soaps cool again.”

The network hopes to capitalize on “Revenge's” early success by moving it to the “Desperate Housewives” time slot on Sunday nights, between “Once Upon a Time” and the new series “666 Park Avenue,” in which a creepy couple who just might be the children of Satan run a mysterious apartment complex.

“It's an historic time slot, so there's a lot of pressure, but it feels like a night the network thought a lot about,” said creator Mike Kelley. “It's a night about the battle of evil vs. good.”

Which side is winning on “Revenge”?

Last May's season finale left that question up in the air. As Florence and the Machine's “Seven Devils” played in the background, we were faced with the possibility that Amanda's half-sister Charlotte may have committed suicide and that her most dangerous foe, Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), appeared to have been blown to smithereens in a plane crash. Then there was the bombshell that the mother Amanda presumed to be dead is very much alive — and will be played by “Single White Female” nut job Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Some clues to what happens, please.

“We can literally not tell anybody,” said Christa Allen, who portrays Charlotte. “I can't even tell my mom, because she'd go to her girlfriends and start blabbering.”

Neal Justin is a staff writer for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

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