Created by John McNamara
and David Simkins
“Like you know that show ‘Touched by an Angel’? Well, this ain’t it.”
Vengeance Unlimited, a short-lived TV drama from 1998-99t may have been just a little too hip for the room.
Michael Madsen starred as the enigmatic, charming, and very sick puppy, MR. CHAPEL, a man with a macabre sense of humour and a cock-eyed sense of justice, who hand-tailors some rather peculiar and unique punishments for criminals who have managed to so far outsmart or elude the legal system.
His fee? A mere million dollars.
Or a favour.
Imagine an Equalizer for the nineties, harder and tougher and certifiably more twisted than anything Edward Woodward ever dreamed up. And that’s the thing. With his sly smile, and humourous asides, Mr. Chapel may be enjoying his work just a bit too much. When asked at one point why he does what he does, his reply is “Let’s just say I once had a really bad Monday.”
Helping out Chapel in his elaborate scams–and trying to rein him in when she thinks he’s going too far–is KC, a young law clerk who becomes fascinated by Mr. Chapel when he helps her out of a jam in the show’s first episode, which wraps up with her tracking him down and joining his crusade. Together they seek out those victims who need their help the most–offering restitution and peace of mind.
When I first heard of this show, I was wondering whether it would be closer to The Equalizer or Dellaventura. But now that I’ve seen it, I think we’re striking some pretty new, or at least fresh, ground here. The show acknowledges the past: the retro-noir opening credits, and Chapel making his home in the Paladin Hotel (see Have Gun-Will Travel), etc., and Madsen is a compelling actor who’s proven himself countless times in this genre (Donnie Brasco, Reservoir Dogs, etc.). His turn as an unpredictable, impulsive and possibly unhinged hard-boiled avenger is by turns chilling, hilarious and compelling. There’s a real giddy sense of noir on this one. The only mystery is why it was on at eight o’clock. They should have put it on at ten, and really kicked out the jams.
Vengeance Unlimited really was a challenging show, and never bothered to play it safe–a real surprise when you consider it was on prime time network television, smack dab in the middle of family viewing hours. Perhaps its cheeky black humour was just too far ahead of the curve–remember, this was before anyone had ever heard of Breaking Bad, The Wire or The Sopranos.
Sure, the plots didn’t always cut as deep as they could have, but the concept could have been a real contender, if it had only made its debut a few years later. Imagine a sort of wild justice, brushed off and bulked up for an audience weaned on Showtime and HBO. I can see multi-episode storylines and twisted, complicated layers of betrayal and subterfuge as Mr. Chapel runs his elaborate cons on the bad guys… a sort of noir version of Mission: Impossible.
After all, how many shows had the cheek to includea scene suggesting a prison gang rape scene… set to “It’s Raining Men”?
Alas, the critics hated it (or missed the point), audiences didn’t get it, and ABC scrapped it after only sixteen episodes. But over the years it’s attracted something of a cult following, beloved for the very reasons many rejected it.
ABOUT THE CREATORS
John McNamara is an American writer, producer, showrunner and television creator who has just happened to have had a hand in whipping up some of my favourite TV shows, most of which were soon cancelled, including Vengeance Unlimited, Eyes and In Plain Sight.
- “Budget corn. I like it.”
— Mr. Chapel on his preferred, and inexpensive, munchie
- “If you try that again, I’ll break every bone in your body, one per second. That’s 206 seconds, maybe seven, give or take a bone.”
— Mr. Chapel
- Mr. Chapel: We live in a world, you and I, where people can kill someone and get a book deal out of it because they hire the right lawyer, or they get an acting teacher who teaches them how to cry on camera.
KC: You think you can change all that?
Mr. Chapel: Well, maybe not, but I don’t have to tolerate it.”
- “What do I want? I want to go back in time and stop John from meeting Yoko.”
— Mr. Chapel
- KC: Quick question.
Mr. Chapel: Yeah?
KC: Are you Satan?
Mr. Chapel: No.
KC: Just checking.
- “I’m not going to hurt him. He won’t feel a thing.”
— Mr. Chapel reassures KC
- KC: You hate me, don’t you?
Mr. Chapel: No, but my love can take strange forms.
- “Stay tuned. It’s gonna get stranger.”
— an ABC commercial break slogan for Vengeance Unlimited
- “Don’t touch that tinsel.”
— another commercial break slogan, but this time it’s seasonal
- “Finally caught Vengeance Unlimited last week. Haven’t laughed that much in a long time. It’s The Equalizer on acid! It makes the willing suspension of disbelief of Mission: Impossible seem like nothing. It worked for me as a comedy (except for Chapel’s tear at the end, although that wasn’t a lease breaker). I can’t resist a man who’ll shred two million bucks and torch the rest of the swag. This show, more than Buddy Faro, may be the one that’s too hip for the room. Funniest show I’ve seen since Maximum Bob.
I liked the look of VU; the switch between color and black & white worked for me. In part, I think, because they’re having fun with, but not completely making fun of, the noir look. I’d like to catch it again. Let’s hope it sticks around.
I was also pleased to see Jim Frawley associated with the show as director and co-executive producer. He’s a very versatile, stylish director, a former actor who started out, I believe, directing episodes of The Monkees (may have won an Emmy for one) but whose later work has encompassed everything from Columbo to Law & Order.
By the way, there may only be three ways to do a P.I. show on television: 1) A combo of
Hip/retro/humor (like Faro and VU); 2) a period piece; or 3) something deliberately low-key, character-based (à la Lew Archer or Marsh Tanner) with soft jazz and a strong, quiet empathetic lead. You know, sorta like a good PI novel. (On second thought, the last option wouldn’t work. It would demand too much of the viewer.”
— Ted Fitzgerald (1999)
- “You are right in comparing this show to The Equalizer of the 90’s. This is the best show Warner Bros. has put out since Maverick. And I love the connection to Have Gun-Will Travel. Remember when they when they went to the Hotel Paladin looking for a suspect? A very obvious reference to Paladin (Richard Boone). And what about the cards Mr. Chapel hands out, about being out of your life forever?… A very clever, well-written thouroughly entertaining show.”
— Sharon Daniels
- VENGEANCE UNLIMITED
Premiere: October 1, 1998
16 60-minute episodes
Created by David Simkins and John McNamara
Writers: David Simkins, Charles D. Hallerd, John McNamara, Gary Rieck, Valerie Mayhew, Vivian Mayhew, Charles Holland, Wendy Battles
Directors: James Frawley, Bill Norton, Bobby Roth, Adam Nimoy, Perry Lang,
Executive Producer: John McNamara
From McNamara Paper Product in association with Warner Bros. Television
Starring Michael Madsen as MR. CHAPEL
and Kathleen York as KC
Guest Stars: Dini Merrill, Todd Allen, Robert Carradine, Michael Harney, Harris Yulin, Jerry Mathers,Dina Merrill, Gregg Henry, James Coburn, Jerry Mathers
- “Cruel and Unusual” (September 29, 1998)
- “Victim of Circumstance” (October 1,1998)
- “Eden” (October 8, 1998)
- “Bitter End” (October 15, 1998)
- “Justice” (October 22, 1998)
- “Ambition” (October 29, 1998)
- “Security” (December 10, 1998)
- “Dishonorable Discharge” (December 17, 1998)
- “Noir” (December 24, 1998)
- “Vendetta” (January 7, 1999)
- “Confidence” (January 14, 1999)
- “Judgment” (January 21, 1999)
- “Clique” (January 28, 1999)
- “Critical” (February 4, 1999)
- “Legalese” (February 11, 1999)
- “Friends” (February 25, 1999)