Building atmosphere is tricky business, especially in a story that’s supposed to be frightening. By now, the most basic tricks have become passe: moody lighting, bumps and groans, canted camera angles, shadowy figures passing in the distance, loud music stings. There are dozens more, all with varying degrees of power left to them, but the basic secret is, if you want to make a world stick, if you want to give it life to the audience beyond the sets and the scripts, you need to do something distinctive. There needs to be a texture or a shading which hasn’t been done to death, and while that’s difficult, it’s not impossible. The key is finding a single cohesive idea to riff off, a central narrative that’s strong enough to make all those disparate squiggles and curious moments feel connected. The smoke monster is terrific, but if our heroes aren’t already stuck on an island, desperate to find a way home, it doesn’t really go anywhere.
In its second episode, 666 Park Avenue is struggling to figure out where it wants to go, which leads to a disappointingly dull hour of television. If one were to break down the script in terms of “what matters” and “what was just killing time,” the ratio would be heavily weighted toward the latter, and that’s a bad sign for a show this early out of the gate. There were interesting twists here, and a soul of the week who could have, and should have, gotten more screen time; and there was some development in Gavin’s interest towards Henry, although mostly it was a matter of reiterating what was established last week. Still, that was better than the peeping playwright and his burgeoning affair with the evil assistant. Jane’s battle against a pack of starlings didn’t inspire much enthusiasm either. As sophomore slumps go, “Murmurations” is too often tepid and repetitive in a way that doesn’t bode well for the series as a whole. The potential is still there, but the odds it will be fumbled just got a little higher.
Last week, we had a man so desperate to bring his wife back that he was willing to kill to keep her alive, but only for so long; this week, there’s a lady who keeps murdering the men who betray her. That’s not bad, really, but the former story had a certain built-in pathos to it (Barlow, the murderer, was sympathetic, and there was something desperately sad between him and Mrs. Barlow). Danielle’s murderous rages needed something more to get the most out of them, and she needed to be more of a character for the reveal of her hellish fate to be as effective as it should have been. This was still the best part of the episode, largely because the idea of someone trapped in the Drake for decades, repeating the same pattern over and over again without ever knowing it, is both a nifty metaphor for a damaged romantic, and a neat way to establish what the Drake actually is. We don’t know any of the rules about this place, and we don’t know what Gavin’s goals are, or how much power he has. The indication that there may be dozens of other trapped souls wandering through their curses on the various floors is not a bad structure for a show, and it’s just open enough to allow for any number of possibilities.
It’s too bad, then, that the rest of the hour didn’t make better use of those possibilities. The idea that Gavin is vetting Henry for some great task or position is obviously important for the season’s overall arc, and while Henry having inside information, not telling Gavin, and Gavin being happy that Henry held to his morals, is familiar ground, it was handled deftly. Second episodes often get stuck repeating ideas from the pilot, and as reruns go, this could’ve been worse; it subverted a potential crisis in a satisfying way, and reminded us why Gavin is so interested in Henry and Jane in the first place.
That doesn’t make up for Jane’s pointless storyline, which had her messing around in Barlow’s apartment, finding a flock of starlings (a “murmuration,” as the doomed exterminator helpfully explains), calling an exterminator to take care of them, and then suffering from bad dreams which turn out to be connected to Danielle’s story. There was no tension here, despite the frequent spooky effects, and the starlings weren’t sufficiently eerie enough to generate much interest on their own. The dreams are irritating because they offer no threat to Jane, and the imagery in them is so stock and belabored that they barely register as creepy. Worse is Nona’s reappearance, as her vision of the exterminator’s fate served no more purpose than to show us a clip-show version of a scene we had to sit through in full five minutes later. Yes, the fact that she saw the exterminator dying and then he died means that her vision in the pilot of Jane tied up to a chair, gagged, and screaming will probably come true, but did anyone doubt that? Psychic visions on this sort of show always come true. It’s understandable that the writers would want to drum up some scares, but wanting to scare doesn’t justify sloppiness, or wasted time. Plus, padding isn’t scary, since it’s by definition irrelevant.
Then there was the return of Bruce and Louise and Alexis and jeez, of all the storylines to drag out over multiple episodes, you chose “dude with demanding wife is tempted by sexy temptress,” and not “man kills to keep his wife alive” or even “woman trapped in a never ending cycle of death”? That’s bad planning right there, and this episode does little to allay the concerns this plot raised in the pilot. Bruce is a non-entity (and way too cute to be a damn playwright), Alexis is a non-entity, and Louise is a bit better, but none of them are that interesting, and there’s no tension or fun in watching them work around each other. We still don’t even know what Gavin has to do with any of this, and since he’s why we’re watching, well, you do the math.
All in all, this was an entry that had some of the pieces for a good story, but no real idea how to put them together. Atmosphere building can help a show, but it’s also secondary to basics like narrative and character. Here’s hope this series will spend more time getting those right before it dabbles in any more vague eeriness.
- I like Tony, the concierge. He’s a jerk, in a gloriously New York kind of way, and one of the few people on the show to stand out.
- Henry and Jane have a fun, relaxed chemistry. Should make it unpleasant when Gavin turns them on each other. (Henry’s already started in with dismissing Jane’s concerns.)
- Re: the birds, “Did you provoke them?” “No, I didn’t provoke them.” “I know how you are, Jane.” (Banter!)
- “You’re kind of creepy, aren’t you?” -Tony