What would Ari Gold — Jeremy Piven’s fast-talking huckster of an agent in “Entourage” — have done for a living in 1908? PBS seemingly asks and answers the question by casting Piven as “Mr. Selfridge,” playing the department store owner and P.T. Barnum-like showman who reinvented shopping for early 20th-century Londoners. Written by Andrew Davies of “Bleak House” renown, this “Masterpiece” presentation also juggles a sprawling cast of working-class stiffs who toil for the great man, in a series that brings welcome energy to the “Masterpiece” franchise.
Of course, “Downton Abbey” has elevated expectations for PBS, and “Mr. Selfridge” doesn’t rise to that level of addiction. But those who enter its bustling environs will likely want to hang around long enough (and the drama will play out over eight weeks) to see what happens next.
The Chicago native brings Yankee ingenuity and unabashed salesmanship to the art of retail, seeking to “show the world how to make shopping thrilling.” Much of that hinges on breaking down social mores, and marketing the store to wealthy and poor alike, enlisting a popular stage performer, Ellen Love (the alluring Zoe Tapper), as “the face of Selfridge” — and not incidentally, the proprietor’s latest mistress.
Selfridge’s womanizing ways have mostly been ignored by his wife Rose (Frances O’Connor), but she finds both greater independence and some of her own diversions in their new surroundings. Meanwhile, the downstairs part of the operation includes a lovely shopgirl (Aisling Loftus) with potential suitors but also trouble at home.
As crafted by Davies (working with multiple directors, including Jon Jones on the two-hour premiere), the series careens along briskly enough, providing insight into how far retail marketing has evolved as it goes. (Showcasing women’s cosmetics, for example, is considered as shocking as stocking all dress sizes to accommodate their varying shapes.)
Piven doesn’t really have to stretch much from Ari in a role that also capitalizes on his buoyant persona, but the idea Selfridge was a serial philanderer adds an interesting layer to the character who, despite being the boss, actually blends into the large cast, in a series that’s full of romantic triangles, hunger and striving, and where good-looking waiters are urged to cater to the needs of wealthy socialites. Indeed, the real discovery for an American audience might be Tapper, who manages to make her emotionally needy mistress — having identified Selfridge as a ticket out of the chorus — strangely sympathetic and tragic.
The buzz surrounding “Downton” demonstrated PBS and “Masterpiece” have the potential to expand beyond their usual sleepy profile, and having a U.S. star should help promote this latest entrant (situated, not incidentally, in roughly the same historical window) in that regard.
Granted, “Mr. Selfridge” isn’t quite as thrilling as its title character might envision the art of shopping to be, but for those in the market for another period soap, it should ably close the sale.
(Series; PBS, Sun. March 31, 9 p.m.)
Filmed in London by ITV Studios and Masterpiece. Executive producers, Andrew Davies, Kate Lewis, Rebecca Eaton; producers, Jeremy Piven, Chrissy Skinns; co-producer, Carmel Maloney; director, Jon Jones; writer, Davies; camera, Gavin Finney; production designer, Rob Harris; editor, Chris Barwell; music, Charlie Mole; casting, Kate Rhodes James. 120 MIN.
With: Jeremy Piven, Zoe Tapper, Frances O’Connor, Gregory Fitoussi, Aisling Loftus, Katherine Kelly, Ron Cook, Amanda Abbington, Samuel West.