ABC’s Paul Lee on the Network’s Formula for Escapist Revenge Shows

ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee has been saying some variation of this since his upfront presentation, but he reinforced it again last week when he said his division had gone back through entertainment history to figure out what themes American audiences might be drawn to during a severe and prolonged economics downturn:

“We thought this was a joke and something we could sell at the upfront” presentation. The network found that in difficult periods such as the Great Depression audiences responded to tales of anger and revenge, romances, screwball comedies, and fairy tales. “Lo and behold when you look at the big shows that worked for us, they were comedies, stories of revenge and fairy tales, which was fascinating to see.” For this fall he’s optimistic about Nashville, The Neighbors, and 666 Park Avenue, which he describes as “a very ABC show, a deeply soapy show but it has a twist.”

The way the network’s actually gone about incorporating those themes into its programming is fascinating. There’s nary a straightforward class-war narrative among them, but a strong sense that the elites in any given show are self-cannibalizing.

On Revenge, there are minor upstarts, like assistant Ashley and con man Tyler, who hope to make their way into the upper echelons of Hamptons society, but they’re concerned with preserving that millieu so they can enjoy it. The real threats to upper-class solidarity come from within. Amanda Clarke’s family was destroyed by a conspiracy among her father’s friends to frame him for laundering money for a terrorist organization, when it was actually his neighbors who were guilty—their privilege is founded on the kind of transactions they publicly condemn as noxious. As Amanda, in the guise of Emily Thorne, begins exacting revenge on the people who ruined her life, she finds that some of her enemies, despite their past experience, are still eager to get involved in complex financial schemes, and she uses that propensity against them. When the men of the Clarkes’ circle aren’t making money in a way that carries an inherent risk of dreadful downfall, the women are tearing each other apart: Victoria Greyson, the matriarch of Emily’s stretch of beach is a harpy who doesn’t seem happy unless she has her talons buried deep in the flesh of someone else’s happiness. This is a paradise constructed from rusting siding and rotten struts, dresses sewn from moth-eaten silk. Why wage class war when the system will tear itself to pieces?

The story in Once Upon a Time is similarly a clash of elites, rather than a pure struggle between the powerful and the powerless. In this fairy tale universe, the evil queen’s become Regina, the mayor of a small New England town, and while she clashes with the sheriff Emma Swan (who happens to be the biological mother of the Mayor’s adopted child), the real struggle seems to between her and Mr. Gold, the city’s largest industrialist, and in another world, Rumplestiltskin. In this world and the one they left behind, they’ve pitted different kinds of power against each other: whether elected or anointed, Regina wields the power of the state, while Gold’s control of commerce gives him extraordinary power over the life of the town even after he’s stripped of his magical abilities. The fight between Regina and Emma is vicious and personal, given that the stakes are custody of the child the former raised and the latter bore, and it’s fun to see Emma come into herself as a hero. But the real battle seems to be between Regina and Mr. Gold—their preoccupation with each other alternately harms the people around them and creates space for them to live their lives.

From what I’ve seen, fall show 666 Park Avenue appears to be the same way, a show that takes as its premise that a group of hugely rich New Yorkers got that way because they made a deal with the devil. These shows have in common the idea that while elites can have feelings, they bear some sort of blood taint, and that their power is based in inherently unstable forces or structures. It’s the perfect concept for audiences that feels powerless but frustrated by their circumstances, that wants to see a comeuppance for the architects of their misfortunes but would like to see someone execute them.