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Viewers might not be wild about Harry

Piven is perhaps too proper in latest TV role

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Jeremy Piven has something new to sell. The big question, of course, is this: will anybody buy it?

Piven, who toiled for years as an underappreciated commodity -- in the likes of The Larry Sanders Show, Ellen (the ABC sitcom, not the daytime talk show) and Cupid -- got a career-defining break when he landed the role of super-agent Ari Gold in the HBO comedy Entourage.

Brash, loud and endlessly profane, Ari Gold was a character that allowed Piven to steal every scene he was in; three supporting-actor Emmys later, it might fairly be suggested that the actor and the character have become inextricably linked in many TV-watchers' minds.

So what to do next? Piven has clearly decided the best place to make his return to prime time is as far from the gritty and racy realm of premium-cable programming as possible.

And that place, it turns out, is the proper world of Brit-flavoured PBS/Masterpiece drama.

Piven stars in the new Masterpiece Classic series Mr. Selfridge (which premières Sunday at 9 p.m. on Prairie Public TV), taking on the title role as Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American-born founder of the renowned London department store that bears his name.

As the series opens, Selfridge is holding court with a gaggle of newspaper reporters beside a giant hole in the ground that he claims will soon be London's most popular retail destination.

There is skepticism, of course (along with a whispered declaration by Selfridge's primary financial backer that he's backing out), but Harry Selfridge is a dreamer, a huckster and a ruthless promoter of his entrepreneurial vision.

Despite a lack of actual cash to keep the project running, Selfridge somehow delivers on his promise of opening the store within a year's time. After that, all that's left is the tricky business of getting Londoners into the store and their wallets out of their pockets and handbags.

How it's all done turns out to be a fairly captivating period-piece romp, aided by strong supporting performances by Frances O'Connor as Selfridge's long-suffering wife, Rose; Zoe Tapper as London showgirl Ellen Love, whom Harry woos to become "the face of Selfridge's"; and Aisling Loftus as shopgirl Agnes Towler, whose life is changed by a chance meeting with Selfridge.

If there's a problem, sadly, it's Piven. He's either restraining himself in this role, or Harry is written as so restrained that it's stifling the actor's every impulse. Either way, Mr. Selfridge never quite feels like a vehicle whose star is fully immersed in his character.

And that makes Mr. Selfridge, despite other appealing elements, a bit of a hard sell.

-- -- --

Re-call the midwives: One of PBS's most popular imports from last year makes its overdue return this weekend when Call the Midwife rolls out its second season with an extended eight-episode run (Sunday at 8 p.m. on PPTV).

The young nurses of Nonnatus House are a year older and more experienced, but the challenges of midwifery in London's hardscrabble East End are more daunting than ever.

In a very compelling season opener, Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) risks the wrath of the nuns by helping out an old friend named Jimmy, while Trixie heads into uncharted waters -- literally -- when she's called to deal with a risky birth aboard a visiting Swedish trawler.

Equal parts charming and gut-wrenchingly dramatic, Call the Midwife remains one of TV's real scripted-drama treasures. Put it on your must-see list.

-- -- --

Game time: It's hard to imagine Game of Thrones returning with bigger stakes and greater ambitions, but then again, this is a series born of most magnificent imagination, so why not aim high?

The acclaimed HBO fantasy drama, based on novels by George R. R. Martin, opens its third season on Sunday (HBO Canada, preceded by a repeat of last season's finale, check listings for times) with much more of the trademark swordplay, skullduggery, sex, magic, mythical-creature menagerie and madly ambitious kingdom-building that made it a hit with genre-obsessed fans during its first two seasons.

It's hard to encapsulate the complex tangle of storylines in a few paragraphs, so newcomers to the series face a daunting task getting up to speed. The feud between siblings Tyrion and Cersei Lannister (Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey) is one of the drama's centrepieces, and it's about to get ugly.

Among the notable newcomers to the series are Ciarán Hinds (Rome) as northern warlord Mance Rayder and Brit acting legend Diana Rigg (The Avengers) as Lady Olenna Tyrell, grandmother to Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer).

There are many more new characters to meet, and an endless number of storyline possibilities to be considered as this beautifully crafted and meticulously detailed saga resumes. But for fans of the epic-fantasy genre, TV doesn't get any better than this.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 G3

History

Updated on Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 12:16 PM CDT: corrects spelling of mance rayder

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