The new British soap opera "Mr. Selfridge" has a certain frothy charm that will likely appeal to many viewers looking for something a bit more lighthearted from the Masterpiece Classic mantle. Ironically (or strangely) enough, "Mr. Selfridge" is the second series set in the world of retail to arrive on British airwaves this season following the popular "The Paradise." The show, which runs for 10 episodes (not 8 as are currently listed in the product description), is centered around the formation of Selfridge's Department Store in London after the turn of the century. Although the idea of the show is based in fact, I'm not entirely sure I would even call this a historical drama. It adheres more to the lines of a classic soap opera, with an ensemble of characters engaging in the expected romantic subplots and looking resplendent in period finery. The hat budget alone must surely be frightening (as are some of Mrs. Selfridge's hats)! It never digs particularly deep into complex characterizations, but it breezes along at a nice clip making for a likable enough concoction. Along the way, we see the birth of retail and a romanticized way of life from an era gone by.
Jeremy Piven plays the titular character, a flamboyant American with dreams of retail grandeur. It's a showy lead and often over-the-top, but it's one that fits comfortably into Piven's wheelhouse. Piven's most notorious role, of course, is that of unscrupulous Ari Gold on HBO's "Entourage" where his over-sized performance was hysterically unrepentant. As Selfridge, he displays some of this same manic energy if not the profane hilarity. He isn't a saint, though, as he has an eye for the ladies despite being married. But I think that the audience is meant to find his antics more humorous than hurtful. While I thought Piven would be front and center throughout, "Mr. Selfridge" is structured to incorporate a much bigger cast. And so, we get varying viewpoints from the man himself and throughout the staff down to the newest shop girl. As with any drama, some of the character threads are more inherently interesting than others--but, as I said, this is about amusement more than real depth.
In addition to Piven, I must give a shout out to Frances O'Connor as the missus. Since I made fun of her hat wardrobe, it only seemed fair. At times, "Mr. Selfridge" can seem a bit overcooked and overstated if I'm to be perfectly honest. Sometimes, the drama is played to the rafters so to speak. And this slightly inconsistent tone can be a bit alienating. Is it going for heartfelt drama or something decidedly more wacky? I don't think the makers are always sure. From a personal standpoint, though, I've spent my fair share of time in the retail arena so the program's environment was of interest to me. And as that world continues to crumble to an online marketplace, the notions of customer service and doing a good job as its own reward seem positively alien in this era! But that's part of the appeal of "Mr. Selfridge." It was a different world. The show is diverting enough, if relatively lightweight. It has been greenlit for a second season already, so now is your opportunity to get in on the ground floor of this import. KGHarris, 3/13.