Always read a contract before signing it. That's the fundamental lesson in the series premiere of ABC's new drama 666 Park Avenue. As the title suggests, there is something sinister lurking behind the lavish Beaux-Arts facade of the apartment building called The Drake. Located on Manhattan's fashionable Upper East Side, the Drake has a dark history that one of the protagonists, Jane Van Veen (Rachael Taylor), begins to unravel after her and her boyfriend, Henry Martin (Dave Annable), move in as the new managers. When they ask why the previous manager would give up such a luxurious apartment, they are told that he "went someplace warmer." As viewers, we already know what happened to him, as the prologue tells us his story: once a mediocre violinist, he signed an infernal contract to become the best in the world, and when his time was up, the Drake took his soul. Hence, the need for a new manager.
Although the show draws inspiration from more subtle horror films such as Rosemary's Baby and The Shining, there is no ambiguity about the supernatural element. We see the violinist sucked back in through a door panel when he tries to flee the building, and later another tenant, John Barlow, is sucked into the wall when his contract—bringing his wife back from the dead in exchange for murder—is up. Terry O'Quinn stars as Gavin Doran, the devilish owner of the Drake who makes the deals and grants the utmost desires of those who are willing to sign their souls away. While it's not yet clear if he is supposed to be Satan himself, an emissary of Hell, a devout disciple, or perhaps a trapped soul himself, he is definitely otherworldly. His wife, Olivia, is played by Vanessa Williams and there is also more to her than meets the eye. She mentions a daughter that died in a car accident many years ago, which could play into why she and her husband run the Drake.
Establishing the theme of the show, the Drake and its residents are full of secrets. During her research at the library, Jane discovers that the Drake was home to a group called the Order of the Dragon, which explains the unusual mosaic of a dragon on the dingy basement floor. That may also explain the ghost in the basement and the bizarre dream Jane has about a woman who warns her that "they're never going to let you go" before jumping off the roof and committing suicide. Or was it just a dream? Indeed, Jane doesn't notice that she woke up with dirty feet, even though the woman's suicide occurred before they had even moved in. The woman was John Barlow's wife, Mary, who was taken back to the afterlife because her husband couldn't continue to "rent" her life by killing others. This was presented in a heartbreaking way, as John told his decomposing wife that he just couldn't do it anymore and she accepted her fate with a brave smile. Even though we didn't get to know these characters, both actors brought the emotion to the screen.
Other residents include photographer Louise Leonard (Mercedes Masohn) and her playwright husband Brian (Robert Buckley), who has a secret of his own: while he is supposed to be writing his next play, he has been watching an immodest blonde neighbor (Helena Mattsson) in various states of undress out the window. One day, he is surprised to find the woman, named Alexis, has been hired as his wife's assistant. Shortly thereafter, Louise suffers horrific injuries when the elevator door repeatedly crushes her. That scene was quite shocking for a network series, but it proves that nobody is safe. One would assume that Brian signed over his soul in exchange for a smash-hit Broadway play and that his wife was part of the bargain in some way. Another notable tenant is Nona Clark (Samantha Logan) who reveals a special gift to end the episode. After stealing a necklace from Jane, she holds it in her hands and has a premonition about Jane being chased by a shadowy man wielding an axe. Good hook to bring viewers back for the next episode.
A haunted house story on a grander scale, 666 Park Avenue shows a bit more restraint and seems to be more sensible than FX's American Horror Story. To be honest, I was expecting (dreading?) that the show would be more of a primetime soap with occultish trappings, but the emphasis is on a different kind of temptation and seduction: what would make someone sell their soul? The idea that each tenant in the building has a secret to hide provides great potential for the future of the series, and Terry O'Quinn is at his scenery-chewing best in this role. Everybody has something they desire, and Gavin can provide it for them... at a hefty price. It's a fun character at the center of a mysterious and intriguing series. There are many possibilities and questions left to be answered, with a fair share of twists and turns to be revealed along the way. It may cost you your soul, but 666 Park Avenue is worth the price.
FINAL GRADE: B