Mr. Selfridge

Mr. Selfridge debuts as a part of PBS' Masterpiece tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets. You should check local listings.

There’s a memorable moment in an old episode of The Simpsons where Homer is in talks with a bunch of television producers. The suits explain that their plans for a new show were scuttled when a rival network announced a similar show starring Annie Potts and Jeremy Piven. “Who’s Jeremy Piven?” Homer whimpers, in the tone of a frightened caveman confronted with something strange and unsettling. The producers say that they have no idea, “but it scared the hell out of us.” This was back in 1999, around the time that Piven’s starring vehicle Cupid was tanking. I had a love-hate relationship with Piven on that show, finally tilting toward "like." He wasn’t exactly someone you couldn’t wait to invite into your living room every week, and he seemed a little self-infatuated, but he also had a nervy, anxious quality that I diagnosed as being at least partly a by-product of flop sweat. He looked as if he wasn’t sure this show—in which he played a discharged mental patient who claimed to be the Greek god of love, sentenced to live life as a mortal until he had successfully arranged 100 love connections—was going to fly, but it was his shot, and so long as he could, he was going to sell the shit out of it. It made him exciting to watch and in a way that matched up with the character’s instability.

In Mr. Selfridge, Piven plays the trailblazing retail magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge, who opened his self-named department store in London in 1909. The lavishly designed series, which was co-produced by PBS and the British network ITV, is an attempt to suck in the audience for period-costume ensemble drama that Downton Abbey has been riding to the bank, maybe with a little overflow from the audience for Mad Men. (Selfridge stirs up the London scene by introducing promotional techniques that have been working in America but haven’t yet crossed the Atlantic.) It’s also Piven’s latest chance to carry a series, after eight years of being acclaimed as the secret star of Entourage. Piven’s fast-talking agent act on Entourage was fine, but it was the kind of part that many an ambitious, motor-mouthed actor could do in his sleep; if he looked especially good doing it, a lot of the credit for that ought to go to the four minimally talented, charisma-deprived corn dogs you were stuck watching whenever he wasn’t at center-stage. He won three Emmys for it, though, and that seems to have done wonders for his self-confidence. To judge from his performance here, self-confidence doesn’t become him nearly as much as flop sweat.

As depicted here, Selfridge is a lovable showman, a Chicago Oz who lands in London and starts dancing as fast as he can to impress the Munchkins. He invites the press to the bare lot where he plans to erect his retail masterpiece, grandly announcing that, “on this very spot will be the biggest and the best department store” that the world has ever known. “We’re standing in a hole in the ground at the dead end of Oxford Street,” sniffs a doubter. Undeterred, Selfridge barks, “This is no ordinary hole.” Meanwhile, his chief investor would like a word. Appalled at the pointless expense and embarrassing hype, he intends to pull out, leaving Selfridge without the necessary funding. He plows ahead anyway, asking only that his ex-partner not reveal this development to the press.

When it hits the papers anyway, Selfridge gapes at the headlines and says, “He promised me!” The tone of childlike dismay that Piven chooses to use for that line sums up how miscast he is. Selfridge is written as a big-spending, big-talking one-man band, a magnetic bad-boy charmer who’s never more alive than when he’s on the verge of bankruptcy and betting his whole life on the next role of the dice. Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper), a chorus girl he sets his sights on as the face of his store (and as his latest mistress), tells him, with a seductive smile, that he’s scary because, “You’re so decisive. You’re just a dynamo of energy. You don’t care about danger. You just take a leap into the unknown, and the devil take the consequences.” It usually amounts to a cry of desperation when a “Here’s what we’re going for” character synopsis like this makes the final cut, but it’s necessary here, because none of these qualities come through in Piven’s performance. The one thing that does come through is that, whatever Selfridge does, Piven wants him to be liked by everyone (not least of all the audience) and to seem like a nice guy. Toward that end, he grins like a chimpanzee and literally laughs “Ha ha ha ha!” (Not at anything funny, mind you: Every so often, he just throws his head back and says “Ha ha ha ha!” out of sheer enthusiastic love of life.) Working in Hollywood, Piven must have had plenty of opportunities, when he was playing Ari Gold, to study sharks in their natural habitat. The way he acts here, his only experience of studying nice guys must be from watching kiddie-show hosts.

Without a dynamic figure at the center for the other characters to orbit, the incidents don’t mesh into a dramatic whole, and the supporting actors are on their own. Frances O’Connor is appealing as the long-suffering Mrs. Selfridge, and Katherine Kelly does an entertaining high-camp number, situated squarely at the corner of Downton Abbey and RuPaul’s Drag Race, as her aristocratic frenemy, Lady Mae. With Mr. Selfridge working himself to a nub getting the store ready for its grand opening, his wife thinks about spending the day visiting the National Gallery. Lady Mae advises her that to go on a public day, when the place is full of riff-raff, simply isn’t done. “The paintings are the same, aren’t they?” says Mrs. Selfridge. “No matter who’s there to look at them?” Lady Mae chews on this for a second and coos, “What an original idea.”

Representing the working class, we have Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), a spunky young lass whom Selfridge hires after she’s lost her job for assisting him in his studies of how the established British stores are doing it all wrong. (He comes into the store and asks if she can spread out a selection of gloves for him to choose from, instead of just telling her what he wants: “Maybe I don’t know what I want until I see it.” The rapidly disintegrating old fart who owns the store comes out and pitches a fit when Selfridge tells him that he’s “just looking”: “This is a shop, sir, not an exhibition!”) Generally, the women in the cast have it better than the men. The ones who don’t understand Selfridge’s methods are required to reach for the smelling salts and croak things like “This is madness!” every time he makes a radical suggestion, like early-bird discounts to get people into the store in the mornings; on the other hand, owing to Piven’s cheerful mildness, the ones who are meant to be in thrall to his wild, mad dreams just seem deranged. Mr. Selfridge works pretty well as prestige eye candy, but if QVC were to counter-program against it by having their on-camera shills dress in period costume for an hour, it wouldn’t be any less dramatically involving.

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