On paper, the "Masterpiece Classic" presentation of "Mr. Selfridge" (8 p.m. today, March 31 through May 19, KUED Channel 7) sounds like a potential hit for PBS and for viewers suffering "Downton Abbey" withdrawal.
"Mr. Selfridge" is basically a big-budget, cast-of-dozens soap that's based on the true story of an American entrepreneur who revolutionized department-store shopping in England when he opened Selfridge & Co. in 1909.
But in execution, "Mr. Selfridge" is a bit of a slog, especially in Sunday night's too-long premiere episode that runs almost two hours.
Based on the book "Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge" by Lindy Woodhead, the first two hours of the series were written by frequent "Masterpiece" writer Andrew Davies ("Little Dorrit," ''Bleak House," ''Pride & Prejudice"). The show stars American actor Jeremy Piven, best known for playing obnoxious agent Ari Gold on HBO's "Entourage," as Harry Gordon Selfridge.
Piven's ability to shake off the slime of Ari is hampered somewhat by his tendency to use some of the same tics in this new role. Selfridge is neither as rude nor as loud as Ari, but he's still a showman with big ideas and grand expectations that those around him will fall in line.
The first hour of Sunday's two-hour premiere -- subsequent episodes run a more manageable one hour, save for a two-hour finale on May 19 --- offers a pretty decent set-up. It introduces Selfridge, his family, his staff and his way of doing business, which is largely to will his desires into fruition.
Everyone in London thinks Selfridge is a lunatic for doing things differently, from putting items for sale on display so shoppers can touch them to moving the perfume counter near the front door to help mask the stink that travels in from the street. He also tends to be a risk-taker, much to the chagrin of his conservative chief accountant, Mr. Crabb (Ron Cook).
Viewers meet an initially timid shop girl, Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), who lands a job at Selfridge's; store window designer Henri LeClair (Gregory Fitoussi) and showgirl Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper), who becomes the face of Selfridge's and the owner's mistress.
But after these introductions of new characters and the new ideas that Selfridge brings to the London shopping scene, "Mr. Selfridge" begins to slow down. Scenes drag on as soapy plots for the supporting characters kick in and tend to go in mostly expected directions. Selfridge's wife, Rose (Frances O'Connor), has an independent streak! Henri demands respect from Selfridge! Agnes has a secret!
All hope is not lost. The show's third episode, written by Kate O'Riordan, picks up the pace a bit and advances several stories, including Rose's dalliance with a painter and Selfridge's relationship with Love. This episode also deals with the notion of employee theft and introduces Miss Ravillious (Anna Madeley), a "champion of the rational dress movement," who scandalizes the other female employees by daring to wear a dress that comes down only to her ankles.
"Fashion will be big one day, mark my words," Selfridge says when introducing Miss Ravillious as the store's new head of fashion. "It's just a matter of time."
Several of the early hours revolve around Selfridge's myriad promotional schemes, whether it's bringing an airplane into the store or a ballet dancer. These new ideas tend to shock all the other characters, giving "Mr. Selfridge" some common ground with "Downton Abbey," where new ideas also often clash with tradition and American mores chafe against the British way of doing things.