666 Park Avenue debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Zack Handlen: Terry O’Quinn is the Devil. Well, not the Devil exactly, but someone with Satan’s basic M.O. As Gavin Doran, O’Quinn offers temptation, luxury, and malevolence in equal measure, promising a world of wealth and power to those in need, if only they’re willing to make a few sacrifices. It’s an old role, but still a resonant one in these days of percentage people and wealth disparity, and the actor does a great job making the part his own. Anyone who’s seen O’Quinn play the heavy in The Stepfather or various scenes from Lost knows he has the chops for charismatic, terrifying villainy, but, in a choice that single-handedly helps ground what might have been a laughably cheesy campfest in something perilously close to reality, the actor goes for a low-key, friendly approach. For most of the pilot, Gavin is friendly, confident, and mildly detached from his surroundings, with the air of a super busy, extremely successful older man who’s willing to spare some time to help the younger generations, but only if they don’t behave like fools. He’s creepy, no question, but he isn’t simply a charming monster who bares his teeth when he doesn’t get his way. In those moments in the episode when Gavin is required to bring down the law, he’s more exasperated than outright evil; he really thought that this time it all might work out, but then humanity had to go on being its usual, fallible self, and it’s up to him to pick up the pieces.
O’Quinn is excellent, then, in a role which demands excellence to work at all. He’s the best thing about this first episode, which isn’t a surprise; The title and premise (both taken from a 2011 novel by Gabriella Pierce), sound like something that belongs on the back shelf of a video store in 1986, to be rented by 12-year-olds hoping for some gore and maybe a little nudity. But while O’Quinn is the undeniable draw, what’s impressive is that he isn’t the only reason to keep watching. 666 Park Avenue’s premiere isn’t perfect, but when it works, it runs on soapy drama, atmosphere, and seductive escapism. For all its supernatural trappings (and these are gratifyingly well-deployed), the show is most reminiscent of another ABC show about conniving rich folks and the smart blonde women set against them. Emily Thorne may know more about what she’s getting into than this show’s Jane Van Veen (Rachael Taylor, of last year’s abortive Charlie’s Angels reboot), but both heroes are vying against charismatic antagonists with a long history of getting exactly what they want, and both series know that the key to telling stories of corrupted wealth is to savor that wealth as much as possible.
The pilot is reminiscent of more than just Revenge, however. The Drake apartment building Gavin owns is more than a little reminiscent of the gorgeous gothic in Rosemary’s Baby, and the main storyline, which follows Jane and her boyfriend (but not husband) Henry Martin (Dave Annable, of Brothers & Sisters) as they are tempted by the Drake’s opulence and Gavin and his wife Olivia’s (Vanessa Williams) lifestyle, is a bit like The Devil’s Advocate. Just exactly who (and what) Gavin and Olivia are remains to be seen, but their story is part of a time-honored tradition of horror tales, the “be careful what you wish for, but man, this is some pretty great shit” sort, which allows viewers to indulge in their taste for escapism and moralism at practically the same time. Jane and Henry are offered the world, and it looks amazing, but the warning signs abound on all sides, with the constant reminder than this kind of luxury comes at a very steep cost indeed.
In order for 666 Park Avenue to work, it needs to find ways to specify and differentiate itself from its successors, creating a world at once familiar enough to be appealing, and detailed enough to hold audience’s interest. To this end, the first episode does well to follow the lead of its star. While the hour has its share of over-the-top setpieces, it also presents temptation as something that happens so subtly, and yet so forcefully, it’s nearly impossible to resist. One of the challenges of soul-selling narratives is finding a way to make the exchange convincing. If Gavin’s play for Henry and Jane is too blatant, then the heroes look like idiots and become less interesting. But while the episode gets a lot (maybe too much) into the first hour, the way Gavin and his wife attempt to seduce the Midwestern rubes makes a gratifying amount of sense. The beats to this story aren’t new, but Taylor and Annable are both charming in their roles as dupes, and there’s a solid structure underpinning the hour that helps hold everything together.
The episode has its share of problems. For one thing, this is very much a genre show, and while there are lots of things to like about it, there’s no sign yet that it will win over anyone who doesn’t already like slightly silly, but still utterly straight-faced, spookiness. (Or Terry O’Quinn. Actually, doesn’t everybody like Terry O’Quinn?) And even past that, the first episode has too much going on, with at least one subplot too many. At least one of those subplots (a playwright with a demanding wife ogles his hot neighbor) lacks the likable characters the rest of the hour has to offer, and could prove to be a drag down the line. Another subplot, about a husband desperate to help his wife, is far stronger, and could have used more screentime. There are some corny lines, which are only saved O’Quinn’s modulated approach, and the threat of a mythology that could be effective, but could also bog down the series. While back-story can be useful, or even revelatory, it’s ultimately never as interesting as what’s happening right now, which is something far too many shows seem to forget.
Going forward, the big question is how all of this will play as an actual week-to-week show. Given how much happens in the pilot, there’s no clear indication of how 666 Park Avenue’s episodes will function; most likely, Jane and Henry’s story will proceed, while other souls of the week will pop in and out around them. It could be a mess, but there are enough smart touches to offer hope for O’Quinn fans, and right now is the perfect time for a tale of power corrupting, the allure of easy money, and the slippery slope of self-interest.
Alasdair Wilkins: There’s a winning goofiness underpinning 666 Park Avenue. Terry O’Quinn is an intimidating, unnerving presence, and there are moments in the pilot where he brushes up against pure, satanic evil, but the rest of the show’s horror elements can’t hope to match his earnest intensity. Twice in the pilot, we get a glimpse of the supernatural side of 666 Park Avenue. The initial sequence features an ominous buildup, but the payoff, in which a tenant learns what happens when one breaks a contract with Gavin Duran, looks a little too silly to be as macabre as it theoretically should be. The later scene is scarier, but then Terry O’Quinn is actually in the room for that one. There’s also a winking moment when Henry and Jane first move in and the doorman tells them the former manager moved someplace warmer—Arizona, he clarifies, although of course he really means Hell. (And yes, there’s a very obvious joke to be made at this juncture, but I’ll resist.)
Really, this minor silliness around the edges is perfectly in keeping with the show’s fundamental premise, which arguably reduces to this: If you want to find a decent, affordable apartment in New York City, you will have to make a deal with the devil. This is the rare TV show that is actually in a position to acknowledge that nobody in real life can afford such gigantic Manhattan apartments, and then it’s got the perfect justification to go ahead and give Henry and Jane the most ludicrously huge New York apartment in TV history. It doesn’t quite rise to the level of a running gag, but there’s a definite sense throughout the pilot that the show is responding to the countless shows in which the characters seem to live ridiculously above their means. As initial temptations go, the apartment is far more beguiling than a beautiful new dress, time at the driving range, or a night on the town, although these items hold their appeals for the couple.
Rachael Taylor has the makings of an excellent lead for this show, insofar as she’s capable of making you feel time spent with her wouldn’t automatically be better spent with Terry O’Quinn. That isn’t meant to be glib—the show can’t really be built around Gavin, because a show from Satan’s perspective is probably a tough sell on ABC, but O’Quinn is such a singular presence and his character is so intriguing that he could easily overwhelm the rest of the cast. Jane is only sketchily defined in the pilot—she’s fascinated by architecture and historical preservation, she’s nice to people, and that’s more or less it—but Taylor projects enough warmth and fundamental decency that it should be fun to watch her be tempted and corrupted. Dave Annable is more of question mark as Henry, although that’s to some extent because the pilot is very much Jane’s story. There’s an odd moment where Henry relays some fairly horrific news in a weirdly casual manner, and it’s hard to tell whether this is an intentional creative choice or just a bit of wonky acting from Annable. Either way, it’s too early to have a good read on what Henry brings to the show.
As Zack points out, it’s not entirely obvious just how all this is going to work as an ongoing series. There’s the skeleton of a formula in the subplots about the other tenants, which might portend what I suppose we would call a soul-of-the-week format. But Henry and Jane can’t remain oblivious to the Drake’s secrets for all that long before they start looking like morons, and this will likely become a radically different show once they learn the truth. The show offers a couple indications that at least Jane will realize there’s more to the Drake than meets the eye in the relatively near future, but it’s generally not wise to gauge a show’s narrative momentum from its pilot, which has to race along to reach a properly tantalizing endpoint. The second and third episodes should give more of a sense if this is going to be a slow burn, with Henry and Jane continually tempted by the still apparently earthly luxuries of the Durans, or if the show is going to throw caution to the wind and plunge them into the supernatural side of the Drake. The smart money is on the former, but either choice is going to present some narrative challenges—the first option could be tough to keep compelling, while the second could burn through the plot so quickly that the story is finished after a couple dozen episodes—but there’s more than enough potential in tonight’s pilot to give 666 Park Avenue a chance to pull off whichever story it chooses.