Set in a luxurious apartment building with a strange history and a seemingly satanic landlord, 666 Park Avenue tries in vain to streamline its narrative through the eyes of two new tenants, Jane (Rachael Taylor) and Henry (Dave Annable). The writers insist that the couple, fresh from the Midwest, is hoping to make it big—or, as the building’s owner, Gavin Doran (Terry O’Quinn), puts it, simply “make it.” But for a series whose themes of ambition and power are clearly threaded throughout, Jane and Henry’s goals seem rational and modest, without even a hint of latent greed or conflicted morality. Both want good white-collar jobs that they’re qualified for, and both succeed in attaining them, but we don’t learn much more about our ostensible protagonists. Instead of fleshing them out, the show’s writers provide us with berserk elevators murdering residents, wallpaper swallowing a man whole, a peep hole that seems to suck up a man’s soul, a petty thief who can divine the future, a ghost brought back to life, and a series of murders orchestrated by Mr. Doran for some unknown purpose. Too meticulous to qualify as tasteless fun, the show at times feels more cluttered than ornate.
Roman Polanski, from whose work the series takes ample inspiration, is a master of the slow build, of gradual unease accumulated through the same miscalibrated social gestures that make us moderately uncomfortable in daily life. By suggesting something sinister behind the overly friendly elderly couple next door (Rosemary’s Baby) or the severe restrictions on noise and guests (The Tenant), he taps into a pervasive sense of urban alienation. Jane, on the other hand, seems rather naïve and trusting, and there doesn’t appear to be a credible or mundane theory that would explain the bizarre occurrences in the building. Whereas Polanski would have treated us to ominously framed architectural details and personality quirks, 666 Park Avenue is too desperate to lure lost, channel-surfing souls to waste even a moment building suspense. When Jane finally asks Henry, near the end of the pilot, “Are we gonna be okay here?,” it’s not clear what she’s responding to, since she should have asked the question a long time ago, probably when she ran into her agitated neighbor on the way home earlier in the episode and noticed the blood on his hands. The writers clumsily present Jane’s arc as an allegory for displacement, but that explanation has little credibility, of course, in light of the unearthly CGI horrors that surround her.
The show’s villains, if they are in fact as villainous as they seem, have more potential for development as their backstory comes into focus and their motives become clearer. O’Quinn even manages to upstage the apartment building itself, a challenging feat given its cacophonous presence, when he utters lines like “Nasty act of God, heaven forbid!” with just the right mix of slyness and nonchalance, savoring his own private joke while allowing it to pass undetected. But the most intriguing development occurs when the resident thief uses a stolen necklace to envision a future in which Jane is bound and gagged in the basement, wearing a red dress, subtly referencing an earlier scene between Jane and Gavin’s wife, Olivia Doran (Vanessa Williams), in which Olivia takes Jane shopping for a dress and insists a little too eagerly that she buy the red one. The writers imbue the dress with the specificity and strangeness of that relationship and it acquires additional undertones when Olivia reveals that red was the favorite color of her deceased daughter.
Too many of the other eerie images in the show feel like the result of a checklist. By using exposition-free shorthand for things we all know are supposed to be “creepy,” the writers exploit the savviness of a contemporary audience well-versed in such clichés. But the clash of myriad supernatural powers and symbols isn’t willfully dissonant or postmodern. Instead it feels vague and occasionally lazy. 666 Park Avenue offers plenty to lure us in, but it’s not yet clear if it will be a place worth revisiting.