There are many good things in “Mr. Selfridge,” a new PBS “Masterpiece Classic” miniseries that did quite well in England. The costume drama is elegantly written by the current king of the genre, Andrew Davies, who also gave us “Bleak House” and the 1995 version of “Pride and Prejudice.” It’s built around a refreshingly unusual story, as it follows American retail pioneer Harry Gordon Selfridge as he tries to revolutionize the department store — and the way people shop — in London.
And the miniseries, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Channel 2, contains a number of irresistible secondary characters — none, perhaps, as indelible as the Dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith on “Downton Abbey,” but that would be an impossible standard. There is Ellen Love, a showgirl who becomes the face of Selfridge’s store. Played by Zoë Tapper, she is a very watchable blend of ambition and two-bit glamour. And there is Lady Mae Loxley, played with calm ferocity by Katherine Kelly, who plays people like puppets. She holds the key to the hero’s success, and she holds it tightly.
But what do you do with all of these pluses — which also include a smartly designed re-creation of early 1900s London — when the star of the whole enterprise, Jeremy Piven, is miscast?
On the surface, it makes sense: Piven was the coarse, shrewd Ari Gold on “Entourage,” and he compensated for the failings of the rest of the cast on that series with his great energy and comic narcissism. In “Mr. Selfridge,” he is meant to be a variation on Ari, an American huckster in London trying to work investors and consumers into a frenzy of desire. Who better than Piven to be a fountain of bravado, a guy who wants to make shopping “thrilling” for reserved British ladies? I understand why Davies and Company went with him.
But the choice just doesn’t work. Piven doesn’t seem able to bring any nuance to his performance, even while the script calls for it. Selfridge is meant to be somewhat insecure behind his manic exterior. He struggles with attractions to women who are not his wife, Rose (Frances O’Connor), and he has a tender spot for a shopgirl named Agnes (Aisling Loftus) who is trying to rise in the business world against the odds. Piven fails to make any of those quieter qualities real. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself when he’s not yelling and speechifying. He resorts to telegraphing Selfridge’s emotions because he can’t embody them. When Selfridge makes a deal with the devil — Lady Mae — Piven gives us his best I-just-bit-a-lemon face. You may want to do the same.
He also brings a contemporary delivery that is jarring in the context of all the period elements around him. Alas, in this particular entourage, which is filled with promise, Piven is the weak link.