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The Paradise

Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. With the start of the new fall season, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.

There’s something wonderfully soothing about this kind of Masterpiece Theatre programming. It’s like having a nice warm bath and a cup of tea, then listening to classical music on the radio. That’s a fairly dismissive way to describe an eight-episode television series, but the truth is, The Paradise only works if viewed within the right set of expectations. If intense drama, harsh social criticism, and wrenching performances are expected, disappointment will follow. But if comfort, melodrama, fine (yet not exactly striking) acting, and just the occasional hint of darkness are being sought, The Paradise delivers. It’s a show that’s only a few inches shy of self-parody: The period dress all looks faintly magical, there’s an appropriate range of British accents, and the music never stops informing the audience exactly how it should feel. With the proper inclinations, it’s a perfectly acceptable way to spend a Sunday.

Adapted from Émile Zola’s novel Au Bonheur Des Dames, The Paradise has all of its British soap-opera credentials on hand. The setting—the first department store in North England—immediately suggests the inherent conflict between progress and tradition, with an accessible, direct symbolism: The rich see the store as a tempting opportunity to indulge in the materialism their wealth allows, while the working class look at the job offerings as a chance to build careers and meet potential mates. The show’s two central characters, played by Emun Elliott and Joanna Vanderham, spend their time in distinctly different social strata: As the ambitious owner of The Paradise, Elliott operates among the elite, deciding the fortunes of his employees and operating with an eye toward expansion. Vanderham, first introduced arriving in the city and gaping at The Paradise’s window displays, takes a job as a shop girl when she learns her uncle’s business is failing, due in no small part to Elliott’s success.

The disparity between the two, and the meet-cute moments that pop up a few times in the first two episodes, suggest the sort of traditional romance that such dramas thrive on. Adding to the complications is Elaine Cassidy as Elliott’s more conventional love interest, a determined young woman of breeding who could have easily stepped out of the pages of a Henry James novel. The triangle is, on its surface, conventional: Elliott will eventually be forced to choose between security and passion. It’s a tale as old as time: The perfectly nice rich lady gets wed-blocked by an idealistic blonde. Film (with tasteful lighting) at 11.

Yet there are some interesting variations on the theme in evidence. Elliott is dependent on Cassidy’s connections (namely her father, played by Patrick Malahide, the closest thing to a name actor in the cast) to achieve the expansion he so desperately desires, and there are dark whispers about the fate of the entrepreneur’s first wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. More compelling is the script’s effort at establishing a reason for the storeowner and the shop girl to fall for one another. While Vanderham starts off as a wide-eyed naïf, she catches on quickly; more importantly, she shows a knack, and even a passion, for improving the store that indicates a sharper mind than her initial “Oh yes sir"s implied. 

These developments are only tremors of something that likely won’t pay off until the back half of the show’s run. The first two hours focus on more self-contained stories—a store-wide sale designed to attract enough new business to impress Malahide, an unstable woman of property whose marital distress leads her down a dangerous path. The plots unfold leisurely, and the slow, steady pace is part of the show’s design. There’s time to get every character’s perspective, and if those perspectives are rarely developed or distinctive, they’re at least universally sympathetic. There are no real villains here, at least not yet, just individuals caught up in the undeniable pressures of the system and circumstance.

This is very nice, but it doesn’t tend to lend much energy or urgency to the proceedings. The Paradise’s biggest fault is that it lacks what Elliott and Vanderham value so highly: salesmanship. The social commentary is evident, but it lacks teeth. The source novel was in part a critique of the cost of capitalism and industry on the lives of the lower classes. Here, the store’s staff behave like kids at a boarding school. Crises threaten, but are regularly dispatched with conversation and a little drama. The second hour comes the closest to feeling vital and important, and that might bode well for the future, especially considering the inevitable conflict among the three main characters. For now, though, it’s comfortable, but inessential. The performances blur together, as actors deliver lines in a competent, polite way, and everything is filmed in a hazy glow. There’s nothing wrong with any of it.

Developed by: Bill Gallagher, from the novel by Émile Zola 
Starring: Emun Elliott, Joanna Vanderham, Elaine Cassidy, Sarah Lancashire, Matthew McNulty
Format: Hour-long, Britsh costume drama
Two episodes watched for review

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