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Poor Mr. Selfridge, freighted with comparisons before he even opens for business. Will the Masterpiece Classics series that debuts tonight (3/31) on PBS become the new Downton Abbey? After all, Downton's timeslot successor is also set in Edwardian England, and comes complete with upper crust accents and cantilevered hats. Will audiences be able to accept Jeremy Piven as pioneering showman of shopping Harry Gordon Selfridge after seeing him for eight seasons as f-bomb hurling Hollywood agent Ari Gold on Entourage?
Well, to answer the first question, Mr. Selfridge is not another Downton Abbey - but it is a lot of fun. The series is all Piven's and he seems to be having a marvelous time portraying Selfridge, the visionary retailer hailed as the P.T. Barnum of shopping. And so what if Mr. Selfridge's hard-charging, fast-talking energy might make you think of Ari Gold without the cursing? That in itself is worth seeing.
"As I was reading it, I was willing my beard to grow ... no way I could say no," said Piven, asked about his return to television at the most recent TCA conclave. He also let us know, "Being on Masterpiece is like telling a Jewish mother you're going to be a doctor. You've made it." A fan of Downton Abbey himself, Piven said he was only too glad to have had promos for his show attached to the hit.
The Wisconsin-born Selfridge had transformed Marshall Field into a glittering mecca of merchandise before traveling across the Atlantic to open his own department store in London - determined to show the Brits that shopping could be, should be a transcendent experience, a feast for the senses with delightful theatrical flourishes, luxurious accoutrements and doting attendants. He soon learned that doing one's own shopping was not considered "smart" by well-to-do Londoners, who had fitters come to them. Can you imagine? Before Selfridge, shopping was not considered something one did for pleasure. Such a service he performed for the world! The married Selfridge got help from London's ladies and more. He loved living large.
The eight-part series comes from writer-producer extraordinaire Andrew Davies ( Little Dorrit). Davies told press Mr. Selfridge's ratings were so good in the Unite Kingdom, he could foresee going four seasons with the saga of Selfridge, which Piven compared to a Greek tragedy. Then Davies asked Piven, "Are you up for it, Jeremy?" And Piven replied, "I certainly hope I have the job, yeah. To be replaced at this point would be very disappointing. And confusing. It could be like Darrin on Bewitched."
Jeremy, it's good to have you back.