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Monday, March 10, 2014

The Paradise

Lovers of the British series, Downton Abbey, have probably discovered PBS’s latest jewel in historical programming—The Paradise. With all the deluge of great television programs, many people are finding the writing and storylines of TV shows more compelling and entertaining than theatrical films. That certainly is the case with me. In particular, I have become a huge fan of Masterpiece on PBS where wonderful shows like Sherlock (I’m a huge Benedict Cumberbatch fan), Cranford, and Downton Abbey surpass much of what comes out of Hollywood.

The Paradise has been the most recent Masterpiece serial keeping me glued to the edge of my sofa every Sunday night for weeks now—even my husband is hooked. Curiously, it is about a Victorian-era English department store, much like the BBC serial, Mr. Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven. Having worked in retail management for years after college, I couldn’t imagine a more uninteresting setting for a period drama than a department store, but it turns out I was wrong. Mystery, drama, romance, jealously, unrequited love, and even murder are part of the plot in this fascinating story.

The star is the beautiful, independent, inquisitive, and highly creative Denise (played by Joanna Vanderham) who becomes a shop girl at the elegant department store known as The Paradise. Denise is angelic and naïve, yet wise beyond her years—a powerful combination that enables her to successfully maneuver the political climate of the ladies ready-to-wear section. Historically, seniority and position take precedence over business acumen, but when the dashing store owner, John Moray (played by Emun Elliot), sees her head for business, Denise quickly becomes his favorite employee.

The drama ignites when Denise finds herself falling in love with Mr. Moray. Dark and brooding, Moray is a widower with an eye for the ladies but no real intention of remarrying. It is unclear whether he suffers from guilt over his wife’s mysterious death or whether he is broken-hearted over his loss. The wealthy Katherine Glendenning (played by Elaine Cassidy) believes she can warm his frosty heart—and almost succeeds until Denise enters the picture. Elaine Cassidy is a great actress who skillfully morphs Katherine’s character from a kind, good-natured aristocrat to a desperate, conniving monster. Nevertheless, she is a sympathetic antagonist, mainly because Moray toys with her emotions, hoping to secure access to her father’s money.

Another beloved character is Miss Audrey (played by Sarah Lancashire), who heads up the ready-to-wear department. Business-minded but lacking in innovation, Miss Audrey is a Victorian feminist who dons her corset and curls, putting in long, hard hours for a company she has come to love. Initially, she resents Denise’s unique ability to generate clever sales ideas, but eventually decides to use them to her benefit. She is a likeable, sad woman who forsook love and marriage for career. Occasionally, the loneliness that accompanies her decision creeps into her mind, haunting her with what “could have been,” but she easily brushes it aside. She is an interesting study on the human desire to substitute work for human affection. There are many people today who can relate to Miss Audrey’s dilemma.

A notable difference in this drama versus other BBC period-pieces is the lack of opulence in clothing and setting. Particularly, Katherine’s dresses are very garish and almost cartoonish and her home looks like a modern-day country club mansion. The store is beautiful, but not nearly as decorative as the one in Mr. Selfridge. Denise is beautiful, but since all shop girls are required to wear the same black dress each day, her attire is a bit dowdy. Her uncle, a dressmaker, sews a lovely blue silk ensemble, but its high neckline and prominent darts are unbecoming. But despite all of that, the overall look of the show and entertainment value doesn’t disappoint. In fact, the final episode is a cruel cliffhanger!

Will Denise and Moray be together? Can their love withstand the evil plans of Katherine Glendenning? Answer: gotta wait till next season. Until then, I guess I’ll have to settle for more of Downton Abbey and Sherlock. Sounds like a pretty good plan to me! 

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