At least in part, your feelings about the new PBS Masterpiece series "Mr. Selfridge" may depend on how you feel about Jeremy Piven, the former "Entourage" actor who stars in the title role.
Piven, an actor with a somewhat mercurial reputation (pun intended), can't help but bring a little of his wheeler-dealer Ari Gold character to the Selfridge part. (But to be fair, both Gold and Selfridge do seem to possess the same Showboat strand of DNA.)
The eight-part series, debuting Sunday at 9, tells the story of the Wisconsin native who took his retail talents to London in 1908 and founded one of the city's most fantastic and most famous department stores: Selfridge & Co. -- a truly innovative store still operating in the same location on Oxford Street in London.
Selfridge, who got his professional start at Marshall Fields in Chicago, was a forward-thinking retail genius, and for that reason alone, the series is fascinating for its look at how he helped transform the way people shop.
But Selfridge was also a man who lived as grandly as he dreamed, so his flawed personal life plays a big part in this story. A serial philanderer, Selfridge repeatedly gives in to an almost primal appetite for showgirls, practically drooling as he watches stage star Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper) prance around during performances. Those appetites have a profound impact on both his new business and his family, which has recently relocated to London from Chicago.
Despite those moral flaws, Selfridge is also portrayed here as a family man, but one more loyal -- and more attentive -- to his work family than to those who share his last name.
I've checked and it's against international law to write about any Masterpiece series these days without mentioning "Downton Abbey," so I'll add that like "Downton" (which began its story in roughly the same time period), "Mr. Selfridge" does a fine job of demonstrating the "upstairs/downstairs" aspect of the Selfridge & Co. narrative. This is Selfridge's story, no doubt, but nearly as much time is devoted to the lives of the clerks, waiters and various other employees at the landmark store. The result is a look at class lines similar to what we see in "Downton," just moved to the grittier big city setting. (And an interesting wrinkle here is that the American Selfridges, though very wealthy, were not fully accepted by the sentries of London's upper class.)
Still, while I admit that "Mr. Selfridge" the series grew on me as I watched more episodes (I've seen four total, which includes Sunday's two-hour debut), Mr. Selfridge the character always feels a little too much like Ari Gold with a time machine.
Watch "Mr. Selfridge" beginning Sunday night at 9 on UNC-TV.