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I truly like Jeremy Piven as an actor and have for many years through so many different projects — The Larry Sanders Show, Cupid, a bunch of movies and Entourage, where he was, without question, the driving force and main reason for watching.
But it’s impossible to watch PBS’ Masterpiece Classic miniseries Mr. Selfridge and not conclude that he’s miscast here. Part of it might be that this is Piven’s first television role since Entourage, and maybe it’s unfair to the actor, but there are plenty of moments when it looks like Ari Gold wandered into a British costume drama.
AIR DATE Nov 30, 1999
Mr. Selfridge was “inspired by” the book Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge but was “created and written” by Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House). Piven also is a producer.
It’s the story of Harry Gordon Selfridge, a Chicago native who cut his teeth at Marshall Field’s and then went to London to revolutionize the way the Brits (and eventually others) did their shopping. With more salesmanship, hoopla and financial wrangling than any one man probably could survive, he launched the iconic department store Selfridges in 1909 and kept it running with his manic intensity, belief in hucksterism and lots of charm. Some of that, of course, would come back to haunt him. Selfridge “combined guile, taste, boldness, the poise of swindler and the seductive charm of a Casanova,” as PBS put it — and a man like that always steps into a pitfall or two of his own making.
It’s easy to see how Piven was cast for this role. Selfridge was an American who had to manufacture bluster, speak loudly and sell his vision of selling. One look at Piven’s turn as mega-agent Ari in Entourage must have been awfully convincing. “We are going to show the world how to make shopping thrilling!” says Selfridge, sounding like Ari selling a movie. Later, explaining his motives and core beliefs as the proprietor of a new brand of store, Selfridge says: “I want merchandise people will desire. I want merchandise people don’t even know they will desire until they see it right in front of their eyes!”
But Piven seems out of his element paired against British actors who have this costume-drama thing in their DNA. In his serious moments as Selfridge — who has personal doubts, demons and a weakness for women — the tone and mannerisms are well off.
Another element that could be to blame here is that Davies seems to miss his mark with the writing, as the miniseries seems overly pat with its relentlessly churning piston of sell, sell, sell — that’s the Selfridge way. Keep the merchandise open and tempting and have some sideshow that draws in the people and a new era will flourish (with profits for all). Even Harry’s pursuit of the sexy showgirl Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper) while ignoring his wife, Rose (Frances O’Connor), seems all too familiar.
There are some detours in Mr. Selfridge that have merit — his assembling of the best and the brightest staff from London shops a full year before Selfridge’s even opens. Mixed in is the side story of Agnes (Aisling Loftus), a shopgirl who gets fired from her stuffy store because of Harry’s charming insistence. See, the miniseries makes it clear that in England at that time, you didn’t “look around” or shop so much as you went to a store, asked for an item and bought what they showed you. Harry, shopping for some gloves, wants to see the entire selection hidden behind the counter. He persuades Agnes to open up the glove drawer and dump it on the counter, where he pores over the merchandise and asks Agnes what she likes and why — one man seeking a focus group wherever he can. A stern shopkeeper essentially tells Harry that going into a store and not buying something is odd, like something a thief might do. And so out the door he goes and poor Agnes gets fired and falls on hard times with her dim but fiery brother, the two having fled from their drunk and abusive father. But even that storyline takes too long to unspool and isn’t particularly riveting.
There’s not much that’s particularly fresh in Mr. Selfridge beyond the premise, and whether that deserves eight parts is up to you. However, fear not. If you have more success separating Piven’s performance here from those of his past, you won’t be abandoned. The ITV series is doing huge numbers in England and has been renewed with a second-season order, which means PBS likely will agree to broadcast it here as well.
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