Tuned In: 'Mr. Selfridge' is familiar story of American entrepreneur in England

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On paper, PBS's "Masterpiece Classic" presentation of "Mr. Selfridge" (9 tonight through May 19, WQED-TV) sounds like a hit for PBS and for viewers suffering "Downton Abbey" withdrawal.

"Mr. Selfridge" is basically a big-budget, cast-of-dozens soap based on the true story of an American entrepreneur who revolutionized department store shopping in England when he opened Selfridge & Co. in 1909.

But in execution, "Mr. Selfridge" is a bit of a slog, especially in tonight's too-long premiere.

'Mr. Selfridge'

When: 9 tonight, PBS.

Starrring: Jeremy Piven.

Based on the book "Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge" by Lindy Woodhead, the first two hours of the series were written by frequent "Masterpiece" writer Andrew Davies ("Little Dorrit," "Bleak House," "Pride & Prejudice"). The show stars American actor Jeremy Piven, best known for playing obnoxious agent Ari Gold on HBO's "Entourage," as Harry Gordon Self-ridge.

Mr. Piven's ability to shake off the slime of Ari is hampered by his tendency to use some of the same tics in this new role. Selfridge is neither as rude nor as loud as Ari, but he's still a showman with big ideas and grand expectations that those around him will fall in line.

The first hour of tonight's two-hour premiere -- subsequent episodes run a more manageable one hour, save for a two-hour finale on May 19 -- offers a pretty decent setup. It introduces Selfridge, his family, his staff and his way of doing business, which is largely to will his desires into fruition.

Everyone in London thinks Selfridge is a lunatic for doing things differently, from putting items for sale on display so shoppers can touch them, to moving the perfume counter near the front door to help mask the stink that travels in from the street. He is also a risk taker, much to the chagrin of his conservative chief accountant, Mr. Crabb (Ron Cook).

Viewers meet an initially timid shop girl, Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), who lands a job at Self-ridge's, store window designer Henri LeClair (Gregory Fitoussi) and showgirl Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper), who becomes the face of Selfridge's and the owner's mistress.

But after these introductions of new characters and the new ideas that Self-ridge brings to the London shopping scene, "Mr. Selfridge" begins to slow down. Scenes drag on as soapy plots for the supporting characters kick in and go in mostly expected directions. Selfridge's wife, Rose (Frances O'Connor), has an independent streak! Henri demands respect from Selfridge! Agnes has a secret!

All hope is not lost. The third episode, written by Kate O'Riordan, picks up the pace and advances several stories, including Rose's dalliance with a painter and Selfridge's relationship with Love. This episode also deals with employee theft and introduces Miss Ravillious (Anna Madeley), a "champion of the rational dress movement," who scandalizes the other female employees by daring to wear a dress that comes down only to her ankles.

"Fashion will be big one day, mark my words," Selfridge says when introducing Miss Ravillious as the store's new head of fashion. "It's just a matter of time."

Several of the early hours revolve around Selfridge's myriad promotional schemes, whether it's bringing an airplane into the store or a ballet dancer. These new ideas tend to shock all the other characters, giving "Mr. Selfridge" some common ground with "Downton Abbey" where new ideas also often clash with tradition and American mores chafe against the British way of doing things.

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Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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