A pleasingly soapy story of beating hearts and changing times, "The Paradise," which begins Sunday on PBS, takes the 1883 Émile Zola department-store novel "Au Bonheur des Dames" (The Ladies' Paradise) and transfers the action from Paris to the north of England.
As a sort of upstairs-downstairs period piece set in the world of retail, it's a cousin to another recent "Masterpiece" presentation, "Mr. Selfridge," about the real-world British emporium, minus the P.T. Barnum antics and baggage of historical facts.
Emun Elliott plays John Moray, a self-made man of the future who has turned an old block of Victorian shops into a single gleaming white immensity of fancy goods. Zola, and "The Paradise," highlight the dark side of this business: The old shops are withering in its shadow. Substitute Target or Amazon for the Paradise, and you have yourself a drama that (at times) is as good as topical.
"Men who slow down, men who take their time, they come second," says Moray. "I don't want to do that."
Young and handsome, he is a hands-on retailer who makes a store-wide sale into a swashbuckling gesture. He is also potentially the metaphorical Archie to Elaine Cassidy's Katherine Glendenning, a dark-haired banker's daughter, and Joanna Vanderham's Denise Lovett, a spunky blond shopgirl just up from the country — the Veronica and the Betty, respectively.
Surrounding the leads are a rich assortment of dreamers and schemers. Series creator Bill Gallagher ("Lark Rise to Candleford") gives each her or his due, including many characters who might elsewhere make cardboard villains: Jonas (David Hayman), the one-armed store detective; Clara (Sonya Cassidy), a feckless shopgirl; and Katherine's banker-father (Patrick Malahide). They are all in love with something or someone.
Class is a subject here, as it must be in British period drama, but there is none of the affection or patience for the bumbling old rich that affects a show like "Downton Abbey."
"Some people, let's call them our betters, if we want them to come into the store we must practice the art of letting them believe they are the masters of every situation," Moray tells Denise, who is full of ideas and ideals. "It's best not to let them know what we're thinking. Especially what we think of them."
More to the point, and profitably, the whole retail enterprise reeks of seduction, if in a mostly genteel 19th-century way. Sex is sublimated through the discussion of dry goods: "Isn't the whole point of temptation to succumb," Moray asks a customer in a crushed-velvet voice. Pitching fabric, Denise waxes sensual: "The crepe has a flecked feel to it, as though it is made of tiny shadows, floating like secrets."
Even more to the point, "The Paradise" charts (perhaps prematurely) the emergence of the career woman. Ladies-wear head Mrs. Audrey (Sarah Lancashire, also currently on PBS in "Last Tango in Halifax") lives for her work. Denise looks upon her boss and says, "I don't want to marry Moray, I want to be him." But she also wonders if both things are possible.
'Masterpiece Classic: The Paradise'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times