Ari Gold returns to U.S. TV screens on Sunday, sans BlackBerry and decked out in a three-piece suit — though it won’t be a Brioni. PBS/Masterpiece will debut department store period drama Mr. Selfridge at 9 PM with Jeremy Piven playing the real-life ‘Mile a Minute Harry Selfridge’, the impresario who changed the way women shopped in early 1900s London. Whether the show can take the U.S. by storm, à la PBS mega-hit Downton Abbey, will come to bear over the first series’ run of 10 episodes. But as much as “period drama” has become a sort of blanket term, there are stark differences to the two shows. Both air in the UK on ITV, and The Guardian compared Selfridge to Downton upon its January UK debut, saying, “You can sit back and relax and not expect anyone to die suddenly without warning — only a minor altercation in the ladies glove department.”
Selfridge is an in-house ITV Studios production that garnered strong ratings from the outset in the UK, averaging over 8M viewers during its run from January through March. (It also beat the BAFTA Awards on February 10 despite the kudocast grabbing its highest numbers in a decade.) Downton Abbey, for its third season, had consolidated ratings averaging 11.9M.
The series is set in Selfridge’s department store, the shopping mecca that American entrepreneur Harry Selfridge built in 1909 and which still stands today on Oxford Street. The cast of characters includes shopgirls, socialites and a sexy (male) French window-dresser. At a screening of the first episode late last year, Piven said playing Selfridge was like “artistic sorbet.” At a TCA panel in January, he said he felt no competition pressure with Downton. “I feel like I willed this job to happen because I was such a fan of that show… I think there’s a great deal of camaraderie there.” It will be interesting to see the response given how strongly U.S. viewers equate the actor to his multiple Emmy-winning role in Entourage. Reviews in the UK, where it’s safe to say audiences are less familiar with “hugging it out”, have been largely positive apart from a few claims of hammy acting. The Guardian called it “polished, lavish, enjoyable period stuff” and of the series finale, The Arts Desk wrote: “Mr. Selfridge has had periodically decent thesping and plenty of visual glamour, but frocks alone do not a drama make.”
One of the things that initially got people talking about Mr. Selfridge before it even aired in the UK was what has become known locally as “the department store wars.” Mr. Selfridge was originally announced in February of 2012 with Piven cast the following month. In May 2012, the BBC announced The Paradise, its own period series also set in a department store and based on Emile Zola’s 1883 novel Au Bonheur Des Dames. The public broadcaster got that show to air in September, several months before ITV slotted Mr. Selfridge. At the time, folks wondered if the BBC wasn’t purposely trying to stick it to ITV whose success with Downton has often been favorably compared to the BBC’s short-lived update of Upstairs Downstairs. Interestingly, PBS/Masterpiece boarded both shows as co-producer. Masterpiece has yet to date The Paradise and executive producer Rebecca Eaton told me awhile back, “We are the beneficiaries of the department store wars. We’re one broadcaster so we’re not competing with anyone, expect perhaps ourselves.”
Mr. Selfridge was picked up for a second season by ITV in February, well ahead of its March 10 UK finale. Set in 1914, just ahead of the Great War, Season 2 will add new castmembers. Shooting starts in April for a 2014 ITV airdate that will coincide with the centenary of World War I. The show has sold well internationally for ITV Studios Global Entertainment, also locking a deal with NBCUniversal for worldwide DVD and DTO rights, excluding the U.S. and Canada. Here’s a trailer for the show: