Jeremy Piven stars as 'Mr. Selfridge'

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* MASTERPIECE CLASSIC: MR. SELFRIDGE. 9 p.m. Sunday, WHYY 12, through May 19.

 

THE RETURN of "Game of Thrones" may again separate the HBO-haves from the have-nots, but it really isn't all that's happening Sunday:

- "The Good Wife" (9 p.m., CBS 3) continues its invigorating run of fresh episodes with one featuring the return of recurring guest stars Gary Cole and Dylan Baker.

-  "Shameless" (9 p.m., Showtime), which is also having a great year, premieres the next-to-last episode of Season 3.

-  In a nod to the holiday (and to the kids who really shouldn't be watching the rest of this stuff), ABC is rerunning "It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown," at 8 p.m.

- "The Walking Dead" (9 p.m., AMC) wraps ups its third season with a 65-minute finale leading into "The Talking Dead" at 10:05.

- On PBS, "Call the Midwife" (8 p.m., WHYY 12) returns for a second season with a haunting episode likely to quash any lingering nostalgia for the "good old days" of the 1950s, at least in the East End of London.

Into this crowded field swaggers PBS' "Masterpiece Classic," with a 10 1/2-hour, eight-week presentation, "Mr. Selfridge," starring Jeremy Piven, an HBO star you no longer need HBO to see.

Piven, who for eight seasons of "Entourage" played brash and driven agent Ari Gold, stars as brash and driven retail entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridge & Co.

Turns out that that very British department store was opened in 1909 by an upstart of an American who'd previously worked at Marshall Field's, in Chicago.

Adapted by Andrew Davies ("Pride and Prejudice," "Bleak House") from Lindy Woodhead's book, "Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge" - a title they should have kept - "Mr. Selfridge" is out to sell itself to an audience still in withdrawal after the season finale last month of another costume drama.

So, producers must've cheered when a critic from one British paper described it as " 'Downton Abbey' with tills." But despite the juxtaposition of Harry's high-flying friends and his considerably less-advantaged employees, "Mr. Selfridge" is a different and so far less addictive show.

And it's not entirely fictional, though Davies told reporters in January that he'd combined some of Selfridge's mistresses to create the showgirl Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper).

"He was an exceptionally active man with the ladies," he said.

Piven, whose parents founded a theater workshop in Evanston, Ill., where he grew up, said that "being on 'Masterpiece' is like telling a Jewish mother you're going to be a doctor."

But not, in this case, a British doctor.

Seeing Piven playing someone not so different from his last TV role (though Ari was both more profane and more faithful), may, I'll admit, have made it harder for me to immediately buy Harry as something more than a duplicitous blowhard.

But as the series goes on - I've seen four installments - and takes a deeper interest in the multitude of characters he's gathered around him, "Mr. Selfridge" begins to come into focus.

Whether you'll find it as engaging as "Downton Abbey" may depend less on any single performance than on how invested you can become in the rise of the modern perfume counter and off-the-rack dresses.

Because in the end, the real star of "Mr. Selfridge" seems to be commerce itself.

 


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On Twitter: @elgray

 

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