For a nonprofit enterprise, PBS has an unexpected fascination with the retail business in the 19th and early 20th century. First, it was “Mr. Selfridge,” about a department-store visionary. Now, it’s a seven-part “Masterpiece Classic” series, “The Paradise,” adapted from an Emile Zola novel (and relocated from Paris to the U.K.). Impeccably cast, extremely handsome, predictably soapy and a trifle slow moving, it’s another first-rate costume drama — complete with class distinctions, melodrama and upstairs/downstairs elements — that should keep an older audience happily diverted until nearly Thanksgiving, when the great ship “Downton Abbey” looms closer on the horizon.
Here, Joanna Vanderham stars as Denise, the wide-eyed country girl who comes to the big city hoping to work for her uncle (Peter Wight), only to discover the new department store has dealt a blow to such mom-and-pop vendors. So she takes a job at said establishment, the Paradise, and with her pluck and intuitive sales instincts, quickly catches the eye of the hard-driving, charismatic and somewhat mysterious owner, Moray (Emun Elliott).
Don’t dare ask about his late wife, she’s told, though he has additional complications regarding the woman who would very much like to be his new one, Katherine Glendenning (Elaine Cassidy), a wealthy heiress whose father (the ubiquitous Patrick Malahide) is an influential banker. The banker, being a dad first, warns Moray that if the store owner breaks his daughter’s heart, he’ll go out of his way to crush him, whatever his own fiduciary interest in the Paradise.
Yet that’s just the opening salvo of soapy doings, which include a young sales associate, Sam (Stephen Wight), who finds himself in a career-threatening predicament involving a wealthy lady; and the jealousy directed at Denise, who works under the watchful eye of Miss Audrey (“Last Tango in Halifax’s” Sarah Lancashire), who is highly skeptical of the lass’s ambitions and interaction with Moray.
In the two-hour premiere, written by Bill Gallagher (subsequent chapters run an hour), there is no shortage of tart dialogue. When one of Katherine’s friends sets her eyes on Moray, she purrs, “If there is a more attractive man within 100 miles, I will kiss my husband.”
Once again, this is a British drama that filters the present through mores of the past, particularly in terms of the haughtiness directed at the working class and the dismissive attitude toward women of any stripe.
Yet Vanderham’s Denise makes for an unusually plucky and resourceful heroine, and the issues regarding the shifting nature of retail — particularly among the elites, resistant to shopping alongside the hoi polloi — are interesting, even if those observations hew pretty closely to ground covered in “Selfridge.”
Although the novel is considered a celebration of dawning capitalism, the setting provides a bustling backdrop to explore the various relationships. For the traditional “Masterpiece” audience, that should be its own little slice of heaven.