"From the makers of Downton Abbey*" is how the promos advertised the premiere of Mr Selfridge, the period drama starring Jeremy Piven, which took to the airwaves last night (One, 8.30) - so it was with some interest that I tuned in. They should've left the makers at Downton Abbey and brought over some of the quality.
(Warning: spoilers from Mr Selfridge follow.)
We may as well cut straight to the chase. I thought Mr Selfridge - or, at least, the first episode of Mr Selfridge - was ridden with flaws, ranging from the story to the dialogue to Piven's performance in the title role.
If you missed it, Mr Selfridge follows the ups and downs of the creation of Selfridges, one of the largest department stores in the world. Piven plays Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American businessman who brings his maverick methods to London and founds his first store at the "dead end" of Oxford Street.
Among much else, Selfridge is credited by some as coining the phrase "the customer is always right".
This is where the first problems kick in for me because I thought the story was a bit generic (again, in the first episode). The basis of the show seems to be that a guy has trouble opening a shop, but still manages to get it done in the face of temptation, doubts (both public and private) and a lack of funding.
It's the kind of tale we've heard, and seen, a million times before - a character achieving his or her goals in the face of obstacles that seem insurmountable. Yet the obstacles just seem to fall by the wayside.
After his business partner pulls out, new investors show themselves before Selfridge has broken a sweat. Fire extinguishers go off, ruining window displays throughout the store, and it is mentioned that it would be impossible to repair them - then he promptly gets them done off camera without another mention.
Even a snowfall (which Selfridge rues as proof you can't prepare for every eventuality) turns into nothing; the next morning looks as though it was filmed somewhere on the south coast of France.
It doesn't help that Piven seems way out of his depth. I don't know whether that is because I can't help thinking of his time on Entourage (it's hard not to see a little of Ari Gold in every scene) or that he seems, in and of himself, anachronistic compared to the rest of the show. Either way, I didn't enjoy his performance here at all.
Part of that was the dialogue. Selfridge refers to the "razzmatazz" around the opening of his store, which stood out to me as being a term that didn't feel like it fit the time period. And many lines could have been delivered by Captain Obvious himself: Selfridge meets a well-known journalist, and introduces us to the character by announcing "I know who you are even though our paths have never crossed," in the most grandiose voice he could muster.
Just have Selfridge roll his eyes in an "oh, you" kind of way. We'll get the point.
It wasn't all bad. Some of the minor players here, many of whom are recognisable faces on the British scene, are well cast: Zoe Tapper is a pleasure to watch, Tom Goodman-Hill is a welcome face, and Aisling Loftus does good work with some shoddy characterisation. And the attention to detail makes Mr Selfridge a gorgeous show to look at.
Sadly, these few points aren't enough to undo the many flaws I picked up on during this first episode. It's not the worst hour-plus on television, by any stretch. But it is a frustrating viewing experience.
Did you watch Mr Selfridge last night? What did you think?
(*) In fact, as far as I can tell, the show has exactly one (1) producer in common with Downton Abbey, and she (Rebecca Eaton) didn't have any hand in actually creating it; heck, Mr Selfridge isn't even mentioned on her IMDb page! I don't know how big the connection to another show has to be before you can invoke its name, but I'd imagine this is one of the more tenuous links exploited in a promotion.