“Mr. Selfridge” (8pm Sun, PBS)
Jeremy Piven provides Masterpiece Classic with a jolt of American energy, rousing the series from its recent Downton Abbey lethargy. In the eight-part “Mr. Selfridge,” Piven plays the real-life Harry Gordon Selfridge, a brash Chicago huckster who pioneered the modern department store in turn-of-the-century London.
Before Selfridge arrived, English shopping was a staid affair. Harry turns it into the greatest show on earth, P.T. Barnum-style. He anticipates consumer culture by making his store into a wish-fulfillment fantasy, complete with lavish window displays and cosmetic counters. When his financing falls through, Selfridge orders his stunned underlings to double the advertising budget. “I must say that the reckless way you conduct your business dismays and, yes, frightens me,” says a British employee who is clearly unprepared for the American Century.
On Entourage, Piven played one of the greatest con men in TV history, the agent Ari Gold. The blustering Selfridge is Gold with a top hat and watch chain, but Piven makes adjustments to be convincing in period drag. Most of all, he communicates how much fun it is to sell a skeptical country on your grand vision.
Whatever “Mr. Selfridge” is selling over the next eight weeks, I’m buying.
Fall to Grace (7pm Thu, HBO)
Jim McGreevey was the New Jersey governor with presidential aspirations who fell from grace after being forced to admit his homosexuality. McGreevey resigned in 2004 amid scandal but then — per the title of Alexandra Pelosi’s inspiring documentary — fell to grace in his life’s next act. McGreevey is now proudly gay and an aspiring Episcopalian minister who works with women in prison. He has the same charisma that once propelled him into office, but a different set of values. He recognizes the destructive nature of his ego, and the shame drilled into him during his Catholic upbringing. Humbled, he identifies with the imprisoned women who’ve made mistakes but still yearn for a shot at fulfillment. “Nobody should be defined by the nadir of their lives,” he insists.
Our hero doesn’t appear to be playing a saint for the cameras, but to have learned from his experiences and achieved a sort of enlightenment. I know he’ll hate me for saying this, but I can’t help it: McGreevey for President 2016.
American Masters: “Philip Roth: Unmasked” (9pm Fri, PBS)
Philip Roth, the bard of Jewish American life, has long been my favorite contemporary novelist. I can relate to Nicole Krauss, who’s quoted in “Philip Roth: Unmasked,” “His provocations, his sense of humor, his intelligence have kept me company as a reader almost all my life.”
Captured before his 80th birthday, Roth is also good company as an interviewee. He discusses his life and career as perceptively as you’d expect, offering a rare glimpse into his creative process. We learn that Portnoy’s Complaint emerged from a dark period when he was unburdening himself to a psychotherapist several times a week. He hit upon a way to “release stuff like this on paper.” The sexually charged masterpiece published in 1969 made him an international sensation, not to mention a target for those who didn’t appreciate an uncensored perspective on the Jewish community. He recalls being yelled at on the street: “Philip Roth, the enemy of the Jews!”
Despite such pressure, Roth has never succumbed to self-censorship. “Shame isn’t for writers,” he insists. Hearing his insights into such startling works as Goodbye, Columbus and Sabbath’s Theater, you see the value of his approach. Tune in on this night for shamelessness at its most eloquent.
Orphan Black (8pm Sat, BBC America)
This new series starts with a stunning tableau. A scraggly English punk named Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) catches the eye of an elegantly dressed woman on a subway platform — an exact look-alike. The elegantly dressed woman then calmly walks in front of a train and kills herself.
This is only the first step down the rabbit hole that is Orphan Black. Sarah decides she can solve her many problems by assuming her double’s identity and emptying her bank account. But the masquerade leads her into a dangerous conspiracy that, by the end of episode one, she can’t even begin to understand. Mysterious figures text her, threaten her, have sex with her, shoot at her. Sarah pieces together the dead woman’s life while the complications pile up in her own life.
Maslany is a revelation. She elicits sympathy as Sarah, even as the character breaks the law and makes terrible decisions. She’s equally convincing as Sarah’s double. You have no trouble believing that the English punk is pulling off this high-wire hoax, and with an American accent, yet.
Speaking of Sarah’s double, what is the look-alike thing all about? I hope next week’s episode brings answers, although I love the questions just as much.
Frontline: Kind Hearted Woman (8pm Mon, PBS)
An intimate documentary about a 32-year-old Oglala Sioux woman from North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Reservation. Robin Charboneau is a divorced single mother with a tragic history of sexual abuse. She has more problems than she can handle — but, somehow, she handles them. Robin attempts to stay sober, gain custody of her children from their abusive father, and get a social work degree by hook or by crook.
Don’t tune in for the filmmaking. Kind Hearted Woman is badly paced and nothing to look at. But do tune in for a glimpse into an American life and location that no network besides PBS would ever train a camera on.
It’s a challenge for Robin to keep herself from crying as she encounters one obstacle after another. You yourself will face the same challenge.
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