The funny thing about Downton Abbey is that it seems to be like every other one of PBS' British imports: a stodgy costume drama that hews closely to a formula that hasn't changed since Charles Dickens was in short pants. While that may be true, there is something magical about the drama that has captivated audiences in the UK and made it PBS' only hit in, well, decades. But can they replicate the magic again? Their certainly hoping to, and this time the Brits' eyes seem set on America. Welcome to Mr. Selfridge.
The newest bet to keep themselves off of government handouts and keep their audience sending away checks to get quality programming and an endless supply of tote bags is this Jeremy Piven drama based on an actual historical figure. Just like Downton, it is imported from ITV. Unlike the previous show, this one seems configured to take the colonies by storm. First of all it stars an America, Jeremy Piven, the sushi-sick actor who we still have to claim as our own no matter how much we want to disavow him (and all those Emmys he won for Entourage), and he's playing an America. Next, it follows the Downton formula so closely that it could be a conjoined twin. Or maybe an America cousin.
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The comparisons start off right from the beginning, with the title sequence, a plinkety, catchy and immediately recognizable theme song plays over the actors names as we see flashes of life in London in 1909. The title character is a huckster from Chicago who comes across the sea to create the greatest department store in the world. Not only do we deal with him, his family, and the high-class London set that he runs with hoping to cultivate investors and customers from the upper echelons, we also get the stories of the shop girls, clerks (which the British still pronounce with a long A), and other functionaries in the store. It's the same upstairs/downstairs effect as another show of which we've grown very fond and has a penchant for killing off its nobles. This one was written by Andrew Davies, who masterminded the critically adored and popular adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair, and House of Cards for British TV.
So, does it live up to its older brother? Well, yes and no. It only has about 7 million viewers in its home country, which is less than the 10.7 million who watched the Season 3 finale of the show and the 11.5 million people that PBS says watched Season 3 of Downton on our shores. Still even half that would be quite a feat for the little channel to pull off.
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As for the quality, it just doesn't quite have the same spark. Jeremy Piven is, well, Jeremy Piven, a nimble actor who is nearly impossible to like. As a snake oil salesman with a noble clientele, he has a bit of charm, but there is nothing behind the character. We have no motivation for why he wants to succeed or what the stakes are if he doesn't, other than the obvious. (Also knowing the real Selfridge ended up peniless on the street doesn't bode well for his character.) The female characters are more well drawn and interesting, especially accessories salesgirl Miss Towler (Aisling Loftus), ingenue and spokesmodel Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper), and sultry noblewoman Lady Mae (Katherine Kelley, who has already said she won't be back for Season 2, which ITV has already ordered). Sure the show (and the store) may be named after the man they're all chasing, but they're the ones who are shoplifting it.
Still the American aspect of the show is what is the most interesting. Here is the man who turned shopping from a drudgery into entertainment, and of course it took someone from the good old U.S. of A. to create conspicuous consumption. But is this what our countrymen want to watch necessarily? Well the ones who are already fans of PBS and costume dramas will surely be amused, but for the rest of it, the show is a bit like one of Selfridge's blustering speeches: lots of flash with little sentiment behind it.
Mr. Selfridge debuts with a two-hour episode on PBS on Sunday, March 31. Check your local listings or PBS.org.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
[Photo Credit: PBS]
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Over the next few months, we’ll see new series soar, old series sour, and so much Jersey Shore madness, we’ll want to shower. Let’s face it: The Fall TV season is intimidating. With dozens of new and returning shows hitting our small screens, we know we have some big choices to make. So, to help you determine what to watch, we’re digging deep into the most notable series premiering this season. Where did each show leave off? Where is it headed? And who should you watch it with? Next up is ABC's ladies who lunch on each other soap Revenge. It's gonna come back to get you, like a homicidal pregnant stripper. No, that's a real thing. Told you it would getcha.
Series: Revenge Premiere Date: Sunday, September 30, at 9 PM on ABC Tagline: Amanda Clark, who the world knows as Emily Thorne, is out for revenge against the powerful Grayson family that framed her father for terrorism and sent him to prison where he died. Now she's using her millions (billions?), her superior cunning, and her ninja training to take them down and find out just who the shady group behind her father's assassination really is. Oh, and there's a few guys she's in love with too. All the Cliffhangers: When season one ended a plane carrying Botox-paralyzed socialite Victoria Grayson, her best frenemy Lydia, and an FBI agent crashed thanks to a bomb the White Haired Man who killed Amanda's father placed on the plane. Who is alive and who is dead? Also, Conrad Grayson was rushing his daughter Charlotte to the hospital after a suicide attempt. Amanda's love Jack was getting back together with Emily, who everyone thinks is Amanda, but is really a homicidal stripper who is carrying a baby that may or may not be Jack's. Also Daniel Grayson was making out with the help. What is this? Downton Abbey? Oh, and Amanda's mother is alive! Additions to the Family: We already know that Jennifer Jason Leigh will be playing Amanda's mother so that should be delicious. Conrad Grayson's son from a previous relationship is also going to be showing up at Grayson Global to make things interesting. We also know that Nolan is going to be getting a love interest, but knowing Nolan the gender is up in the air, but I hear it's a lady. Oh, and Emily is going to need to push out that baby at some point, right? So that baby will be around. Great. Just what this show needs, a baby. Death in the Family: Series creator Mike Kelley says that, just like last year, this season will hinge on a death. The season starts at a place in the future and then we flashback to the Hamptons in the summer, but by midway point there will be another dead body to deal with and we'll know how that future event came to be. Who could it be dead and what are we gonna do about it? Character You Want Dead: The only correct answer is Declan and his awful accent. Character You Don't Want Dead: I'm very afraid that Lydia, the stone-faced she-devil who survived being thrown off a balcony onto the top of a taxi cab, is finally going to die in a fiery plane crash. Our sincere condolences go out to her family, if she had any. Who's That Guy?: We don't know what the hell is going on with Amanda's crazy ninja instructor Satoshi Takeda, but we do know that when he comes back this season he's going to look totally different. Original actor Hiroyuki Sanada wasn't available to do season two so Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is taking over the bad-ass duties. Ratings: The show's top episode was its season finale (seems like people were getting caught up with the soapy hit as it went along). 7.6 million people watched the final episode in May, and I bet the premiere climbs even higher. Why Is It on Sunday?: I don't know, but the new time slot is going to be challenging, considering its up against every single other television show you want to watch. Accolades: The series was ignored by the Emmys, even for Madeline Stowe who plays Victoria, who is acting with a handicap. You don't think botulism paralysis of the forehead counts as a handicap? It does. Who to Watch It With: Your mom who loved Dynasty, your little sister who loves Pretty Little Liars, and your gay best friend who loves short hunky guys who take their shirts off a lot. Who Not to Watch It With: People who want their TV dramas to be real. If we wanted real, we'd watch reality. The Kardashians are real, right? Wine and Cheese Pairing: Well, it's a show set in the summer, so a rosé champagne would be perfect. And cheese? You mean there isn't enough already on screen? Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan [Photo Credit: ABC] More: Holy Crap, Jennifer Jason Leigh Is Going to Be on 'Revenge' 'Revenge' Season 2: Charlotte is Back, Daniel Has a New Lady... But Where is Madeline Stowe? Just What Are the 'Revenge' Characters Thinking in These Crazy Pics?
At least Bewitched has the smarts to reinvent itself contemporizing rather than going for a straight remake. First we meet Isabel (Nicole Kidman) a naïve good-natured witch who wants to give up her supernatural powers to lead a "normal" life--much to the chagrin of her warlock father Nigel (Michael Caine). He doesn't believe she can do it. Neither do we. Then on the other side of town we meet Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) a nearly washed-up actor who's done one too many bad films. To get back on track he decides to do an updated version of the beloved 1960s sitcom Bewitched. As the mere-mortal Darrin Wyatt would be the star of the show not the actress cast as Samantha. In order for that to happen a nobody must play the witch. Lo and behold Jack runs into Isabel who can manipulate her dainty nose in just the right wriggle. He persuades her to take the part while she sees Jack as the quintessential mortal man with whom she can settle down and lead the normal life she so desires. Think it'll work out? (Cue the Bewitched theme song).
We all know Kidman can play complicated and romantic and Ferrell can do comedy. But in Bewitched they each try to do something beyond those skill sets. Unfortunately they can't quite pull it off. Kidman of course is a consummate actress. She can take on just about any character and make it her own including the slightly ditzy eternally cute Isabel. And so she taps into her inner witch once again (like she did in Practical Magic). But trying to remake comedies (like The Stepford Wives) especially something as balls-out as Bewitched doesn't really suit the Oscar winner all that well. And in Ferrell's case he hilariously handles all of Bewitched's improvisational comedic moments as expected. But watching him try to be a romantic leading man is a bit cringe-worthy. I mean if you can make smooching on Nicole Kidman look uncomfortable you certainly aren't doing the job. As far as the rest of the cast everyone is pretty much wasted in one form or another. Caine as Isabel's debonair roué of a father and Shirley MacLaine as the diva-esque actress who plays Bewitched's wonderful Endora have a couple of bright moments but don't get nearly enough to do. The same goes for Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) as Jack's unctuous agent and Kristin Chenoweth (from the Broadway musical Wicked) as Isabel's spirited neighbor. Even Steve Carrell (TV's The Office) as the irascible Uncle Arthur can't offer the right spontaneity. What a shame.
One of Bewitched's saving graces however is writer-director Nora Ephron. She knows romantic comedies having helmed such hits as Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail as well as writing the quintessential romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally…. Bewitched is right up her alley and she fluffs it up like a pro. Yet overall the film is just too darn silly for its own good. Maybe Bewitched suffers from the whole TV-turned-film phenomena in general. The idea of taking such classic TV favorites and adapting them into feature films continues to prove there isn't a shred of originality left in the studio system. But sometimes the concept works (Starsky & Hutch is one that comes to mind). Fans like me are curious as to how filmmakers will rework the material and are especially interested in who they decide to cast to play those beloved icons. We end up giving each one of these big-screen treatment iterations a chance--and are usually disappointed. Bewitched is no exception. Besides being only mildly entertaining to diehard fans Bewitched's inside jokes will most likely go over the heads of those who can't tell Samantha Darrin Endora Aunt Clara Uncle Arthur or Mrs. Kravitz from the characters on I Dream of Jeannie. Probably best just to own the sitcom's DVD collection instead.