In this new golden age of television, there are two types of great shows. Of course, there are the ones that are genuinely great — the epic cable and premium dramas that get nominated for Emmys, the smart, strange comedies that get passed over for awards but attract small armies of fans. And then there are the so-called guilty pleasures (and we say “so-called” because we don’t think anyone should be ashamed for liking what they like): your teen dramas, your so-bad-they’re-good reality shows, your American Horror Story, your first few seasons of Desperate Housewives. TV pundits remain undecided as to whether Downton Abbey fits into the first category or the second, but that show notwithstanding, their newest favorite nighttime soap is ABC’s sparkly, twisty, Hamptons-set Count of Monte Cristo riff, Revenge.
This explains why so many of us have been looking forward to 666 Park Avenue, which debuts Sunday night at 10pm, right after Revenge’s season premiere. By giving the new show such a strong lead-in, ABC clearly hopes not only to find it an audience, but (with Once Upon a Time airing at eight) to build an addictive three-hour block of fun, trashy drama. 666’s premise — sweet young couple moves into posh Upper East Side apartment building that they slowly discover is ruled by demonic forces — seems to fit right in with all the real-life fairy tales and high-society sabotage. Created by David Wilcox, who spent time on the Fringe writing staff, and co-produced by Alloy Entertainment, which is known for glossy teen dramas like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars, the marketing suggests something along the lines of “American Horror Story takes Manhattan.”
There’s no question that 666 was built around Terry O’Quinn (best known as Lost’s John Locke) and Vanessa Williams, the alpha couple who own the Drake and hire a pair of penniless yuppies (Dave Annable, formerly of Brothers & Sisters, and Grey’s Anatomy/Charlie’s Angels alum Rachael Taylor) to manage it. Even before fresh-faced Henry Martin and Jane Van Veen set foot in the building, we see O’Quinn’s Gavin Doran call the former manager, a talented violinist, to tell him his time is up. After unsuccessfully pleading for mercy, the poor man escapes from the Drake only to be literally devoured by it. Before the first commercial break, we know Gavin has supernatural powers at his disposal. Wealthy, impeccably dressed, and often seated behind an imposing desk, he has the air of a firm but fair businessman who just happens to traffic in human lives. “What I do is fulfill needs,” Gavin says. Not a particularly imaginative villain in a post-Occupy Wall Street world, but a compelling one just the same.
We don’t learn as much about his wife, Williams’ Olivia Doran, in the pilot. But she’s haughty and dominant enough to add a touch of fabulousness to the power couple, taking Jane under her icy wing. Although it’s unclear exactly how much Olivia knows about the devilish deals her husband makes with the building’s tenants, the striking pair are clearing hatching big plans for their new employees.
Unfortunately, the rest of the performances aren’t nearly as strong, largely because the rest of the characters aren’t particularly memorable. Henry and Jane seem designed to be the all-American everycouple, but they’re so generic it’s difficult to work up much concern over their inevitable battle with the dark side. And while it looks like much of the rest of the cast will rotate as the evil vortex claims more victims, in the first episode we mostly meet more young, childless, heterosexual couples. Almost everyone seems to have some kind of agreement going with Gavin, yet no one has much of a personality.
The show looks gorgeous, but its tone is just as nondescript as the protagonists. Without soapy stand-offs or juicy character backstories, 666’s pilot doesn’t pack quite as much pleasure as Revenge. It’s not as sexy or scary as American Horror Story, either, probably due to network-TV standards. There’s little heat in the intimate scenes between Henry and Jane. A shot in which a character can’t get his bloody hands clean is a pretty egregious visual cliché. And although the heart-attack percussion starts pounding when a ghostly figure comes up behind Jane in the laundry room, no moment of shock or suspense follows.
There is an upside to the lack of character development and atmosphere, though. Unlike some other shows — J.J. Abrams’ goofy, coincidence-filled Revolution, NBC’s desperate bid for wide appeal, Animal Practice — the pilot doesn’t feel hopeless, just unfinished. The premise has plenty of potential, and a business subplot that only gets a few minutes of screen time could provide some stakes. If 666 spends the next few episodes adding color to Henry and Jane, complicating the characters’ relationships, and otherwise ramping up the suspense, it could still become this year’s Revenge. But it isn’t there yet.
Photo credits: Patrick Harbron/ABC