PBS slides in another British drama

  • By Ellen Gray Philadelphia Daily News
  • Friday, March 29, 2013 8:35pm
  • Life

PBS may be trying to soothe Sunday viewers in the throes of “Downton” withdrawal with another costume piece, a 10 1/2-hour, eight-week presentation on “Masterpiece Classic” called “Mr. Selfridge.”

The title character is played by Jeremy Piven, who for eight seasons of “Entourage” was the brash and driven agent Ari Gold. This time he’s the brash and driven retail entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridge &Co.

Turns out that that very British department store was opened in 1909 by an upstart of an American who’d previously worked at Marshall Field’s, in Chicago.

The series is adapted by Andrew Davies (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Bleak House”) from Lindy Woodhead’s book, “Shopping, Seduction &Mr. Selfridge,” a title they should have kept.

So, producers must’ve cheered when a critic from one British paper described it as “‘Downton Abbey’ with tills.” But despite the juxtaposition of Harry’s high-flying friends and his considerably less-advantaged employees, “Mr. Selfridge” is a different and, so far, less addictive show.

And it’s not entirely fictional, though Davies told reporters in January that he’d combined some of Selfridge’s mistresses to create the showgirl Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper).

“He was an exceptionally active man with the ladies,” he said.

Piven, whose parents founded a theater workshop in Evanston, Ill., where he grew up, said that “being on ‘Masterpiece’ is like telling a Jewish mother you’re going to be a doctor.”

But not, in this case, a British doctor.

Seeing Piven playing someone not so different from his last TV role (though Ari was both more profane and more faithful), may, I’ll admit, have made it harder for me to immediately buy Harry as something more than a duplicitous blowhard.

But as the series goes on — I’ve seen four installments — and takes a deeper interest in the multitude of characters he’s gathered around him, “Mr. Selfridge” begins to come into focus.

Whether you’ll find it as engaging as “Downton Abbey” may depend less on any single performance than on how invested you can become in the rise of the modern perfume counter and off-the-rack dresses.

Because in the end, the real star of “Mr. Selfridge” seems to be commerce itself.

Watch it

“Mr. Selfridge” debuts at 9 p.m. Sunday on KCTS.

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