‘666 Park Avenue’: Demons and Damsels

Glossy and vaguely supernatural, 666 Park Avenue comes across like a meeting of Desperate Housewives and The Devil’s Advocate. Like both those cautionary tales, this one warns of the dangers of an acquisitive society while also glorying in that society’s shiny trappings.

666 Park Avenue opens in the middle of a classical music recital, during which a violinist plays on even as his fingers are bleeding, while a glamorous couple — Gavin (Terry O’Quinn) and Olivia (Vanessa Williams) — watch from the audience. The violinist tries to flee after the performance, rushing home to pack up his life and leave with a melodramatic flourish — the destruction of his violin. It’s not long before we learn that he’s achieved his success because he’s made a deal with Gavin and now he’d rather not pay his debt. Instead, he disappears in a flash of bluish light.

This sequence establishes a couple of thing. First, the premiere episode is tepidly gothic, set in darkened rooms and streets during a thunderstorm. And second, it’s more generally tepid, not quite tipping over into enjoyably silly high camp, like, say, that Al Pacino movie. Rather, 666 Park Avenue takes a pedestrian route, following Henry (Dave Annable) and Jane (Rachael Taylor) as they arrive in Manhattan, seeking the usual wealth and excitement. They embody a kind of Puritan work ethic, the one that says any American can dream big and make it, with a little moral rectitude and a lot of hard graft. This ethic contrasts, of course, with the ostentatious new home and the seemingly easy job they’re offered by Gavin. They don’t ask enough questions either: even after we see that Gavin can be ruthless in his business dealings, Henry and Jane go along.

The younger couple’s essential niceness — or a reluctance on the writers’ part to ask any of us to think too hard — means they agree to serve as building co-managers and don’t wonder about the excessive friendliness of their fellow residents, which would be met with suspicion in most urban apartment blocks, however grand. The pilot takes pains to establish Jane and Henry’s decency, initially signaled by their plain, old-fashioned names as well as the adjective frequently applied to both by their new friends: “nice.” Henry is modest but punctilious about his work for the mayor’s office, uncomfortable with Gavin’s description of his ambition as “gambling.” Jane is sensitive to the feelings of others, and feels just a little compunction about accepting so many generous gifts from her new employers.

Jane’s sensitivity means that she’s quick to notice the mysterious mosaic in the basement as well as her neighbors’ peculiarities. Each of them hides a secret, like the playwright Brian (Robert Buckley) who spies on an attractive stranger (Helena Mattsson) from his window when he should be writing and when his wife, Louise (Mercedes Masohn), is in the room. As annoying as Brian’s transgressions may be (especially when Louise offers him an excuse, by suggesting she’s hard to live with), those of another neighbor, John (James Waterston), are worse: tormented by the death of his wife, he’s going to ominous lengths to get her back.

As Jane makes her disturbing discoveries, 666 Park Avenue drags out a number of horror movie tropes. Feeling unmoored when she learns a job opportunity “fell through,” she has too much time on her hands to investigate and does her building managing alone much of the time. This means she’s subjected to flickering lights and odd noises, and soon becomes a pale Hammer Horror apparition of a woman in a white dress.

Her monstrous counterpart, Gavin, is equally hackneyed, smiling and soft-spoken but wielding a malevolent invisible power. Olivia makes as much impact in the pilot as the lovely clothes and luxurious interiors, appearing only as part of Gavin’s plan. This also makes her part of the series’ blunt metaphor, setting hapless ordinary people — workers like Henry and Jane and the cheery concierge Tony (Erik Palladino) — against the cunning one-percenters.

All that said, 666 Park Avenue is diverting enough, if hardly original. And there’s fun to be had in spotting all the tricks from TV and films you’ve seen before, and in wondering if it’s possible that the show just might turn its class critique into a coherent, pulpy entertainment.

RATING 5 / 10