'Mr. Selfridge' is no 'Downton' with cash registers

Jeremy Piven, center, stars as Harry Selfridge, the American who revolutionized London's department store world in the early 20th century.
Jeremy Piven, center, stars as Harry Selfridge, the American who revolutionized London's department store world in the early 20th century. ITV Studios for Masterpiece

Have you ever seen something glittering in a store window and decided you absolutely could not live without it? Whatever the cost, it must be yours, you think as you breathlessly count out a significant pile of doubloons and take the coveted item home with you.

An hour later, you guessed it: buyer's remorse.

Masterpiece Classic's Mr. Selfridge glitters with pedigree. The series, beginning Sunday night on PBS stations including KET, was created by Britain's great Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House), was inspired by Lindy Woodhead's book Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge, and stars Jeremy Piven (Entourage) as Harry Selfridge, the Yankee Doodle Dandy who taught the English how to shop when he opened Selfridge's department store in 1909. The thrillingly inventive camera work and music add polish, class and even more caché to the entire production.

And that's about it. It's modestly entertaining, but because Davies and his writers and directors have employed a kind of wink-wink artificiality to the performances and style of Mr. Selfridge, you never quite believe much of it and you might find yourself caring only in passing.

Although the ambitious, womanizing Selfridge really did live, and live large at that, he's cut from familiar cloth: The plain-spoken and perhaps boorish American lout tracks mud all over the drawing rooms of London, or Paris, but wins the locals over in the end through the power of his personality. We've seen it in countless books and films over the years.

Few in London think Harry Selfridge's revolutionary ways of salesmanship will sit well with the hidebound British shoppers, and, of course, we know otherwise. Actually displaying the goods on counter tops instead of secreting them away in drawers until a shopper asked to see them? Unheard of.

Selfridge opens the store against all odds and his wife, Rose (Frances O'Connor, Madame Bovary), and his children arrive in London to set up their new lives. Rose is aware of Harry's romantic flings, but chorus girl-turned-socialite Lady Mae (Katherine Kelly) warns her that his current relationship with music hall vixen Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper) could endanger the family's standing in London society and perhaps Harry's business.

The series chugs along on multiple but intersecting story lines. In addition to Harry and Ellen, there is shop girl Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), who cares for her younger, dimmer brother (Calum Callaghan) and is plagued by an abusive, alcoholic father (Nick Moran). She's resented by the other shop girls because she's a favorite of Harry's and is often consulted by the store's flashy Frenchman Henri Le Clair (Grégory Fitoussi) as he creates elaborate window displays for the store. A smooth young waiter, Victor Colleano (Trystan Gravelle), grows increasingly resentful of Le Clair's attention to Agnes, while he fends off sly entreaties for something other than a second glass of sherry from wealthy lonely women dining at Selfridge's Palm Court restaurant.

The third story line focuses on Agnes' supervisor, Miss Mardle (Amanda Abbington), who is desperate for love and having a secret affair with a Selfridge's colleague (Tom Goodman-Hill).

On paper, the approach to Mr. Selfridge is inventive: Contrasting with the old-fashioned melodrama of the plotlines and characters, the directors employ jaunty camerawork to keep things modern — speeding up action in the background and slowing it down in the foreground, for example. And, line by line, Davies' script is a frothy delight.

But the artificiality becomes wearing after a while, especially in Piven's performance. He is constantly "on," speaking in a kind of declamatory monotone, selling, selling, selling. But salesmanship isn't enough when the product is wanting, and savvy buyers may respond to Mr. Selfridge as I did: "Just looking, thank you."


'Masterpiece Classic: Mr. Selfridge'


Debuts at 9 p.m. March 31 on KET. Continues through May 19. Repeats at 9 p.m. each Thursday on KET2.