In the wonderful world of media, sometimes two groups hit upon the same idea at the same time – it’s how you end up with Studio 60 and 30 Rock premiering the same year, or films about asteroids, Truman Capote or volcanoes coming along in pairs. This season it would seem the fates aligned to give British TV two shows about the early days of department stores. BBC got there first with The Paradise, which was so ridiculously awful that the bar seemed low enough for Mr Selfridge to just step over it. Instead it flubbed the whole thing, shambled straight into the bar and went ass over teakettle right over it.
I’m afraid the blame for this fairly solidly with Mr Selfridge himself, as played by Jeremy Piven. He delivers a sequence of preposterous speeches with over-the-top gestures and endless dramatic sweeping exits. I think there’s fairly equal blame here for both the writers and Piven himself, the dialogue is terrible, but the performance raises it to new levels of suckiness. On a second viewing I saw a bit more of what the aim was – to show Mr Selfridge as a ringmaster, putting on a show for everyone that’s watching, even his wife. There’s the briefest flash of the real man when he talks to his mother, but even that is played very heavy handed. Piven fails to really develop any depth to the character, it’s a performance completely without subtlety and moved rapidly from curious, to irritating, landing on downright annoying before the first ad break.
The other big problem with Mr Selfridge is just how similar it is to The Paradise, and it’s not as if those plots were particularly original the first time round. I sighed out loud at the introduction of yet another lowly shop girl who instinctively ‘gets’ what the entrepreneur is doing, flouting all that’s established and ‘correct’ about the way things should be done. There’s also an abundance of tedious batting of eyelids from some manipulative females, tutting “it will never do” outrage by the bucket load and the usual scallywag of a waiter flirting with everyone in sight. Their acting is right up there with Piven’s, actors can’t really be held responsible for terrible dialogue I guess, but the overacted mannerisms, terrible accents and rigid body language are entirely theirs. I didn’t find any of the main characters particularly interesting, the only people that actually interested me were a couple that were barely on screen for a minute – a very nervous head of women’s fashion, and a perky wannabe actress working as a lift girl.
The nuts and bolts of the production are solid enough. The period setting is beautiful, the shop floor an impressive set and every costume and hair style carefully crafted. The music is also fun, and although the directing tricks of using fast and slow motion and composite montages didn’t necessarily work for me, I was at least grateful for the creativity. If only the writers and casting agents had done a better job.
I don’t know whether I’d be more forgiving if I hadn’t seen a couple of episodes of The Paradise, or Downton Abbey for that matter. The Guardian ran a piece comparing the two that makes me wonder if the author actually watched either. While Downton has its flaws they are mostly around plot and occasionally ridiculous dialogue, they are forgivable because the show is entertaining and the cast absolutely superb. Mr Selfridge lacks the self-awareness and any real humour (except for a notable high point with a French man and a sprinkler system). Maybe the series will lighten up as it goes on and maybe the actors will settle into their roles, but it’s off to a pretty poor start.
Mr Selfridge is on ITV on Sunday nights, and you can catch up via the itvPlayer