Every British period import these days, it seems, is destined to be compared to “Downton Abbey.” Can [fill in the blank] match “Downton” when it comes to inspiring international gossip about lords, ladies, butlers, and maids? Can it make primogeniture go prime time?
So here’s the answer. Like “Call the Midwife” and “Mr. Selfridge,” PBS’s two most recent British series imports, “The Paradise” is not the new “Downton Abbey.” I definitely can’t see the seven-part installment of “Masterpiece Classic” becoming an Emmy-winning phenomenon that will inspire trips to its filming locations and outrage when characters leave the show, I mean die. But it’s an elegant mid-weight melodrama that toggles between the haves and the have-nots, and that looks at the close alliance between romance and unattainability. It will engage — though not obsess — those of us who enjoy parsing out the morals and manners of another time and place.
In “The Paradise,” the time is the 1870s and the place is the North of England. Adapted from the Emile Zola novel “Au Bonheur des Dames,” the setting, like that of “Mr. Selfridge,” is the country’s first major department store, called The Paradise. The owner is the coldly charming widower John Moray, played with dark mysteriousness (and formidable dimples) by Emun Elliott. Moray wants to expand his store and bring the classes together at his sales counters, so that rich ladies used to having dresses custom made will happily shop next to butcher’s wives. It’s a far-fetched idea for the time, and the banks aren’t willing to invest; so Moray sets his sites on the wealthy Lord Glendenning (Patrick Malahide), whose daughter, Katherine (Elaine Cassidy), has set her sites on Moray.
There is, of course, a downstairs from this upstairs. Our journey into the lives of the store workers is through newcomer Denise Lovett, who is played as a quietly ambitious and intuitive naïf by Joanna Vanderham. Denise and the other shopgirls live three to a bed under the strict supervision of Miss Audrey (Sarah Lancashire), where they gossip about Moray and the unknown circumstances around the death of his wife. Some of them dream of ascending at the store, and one is smitten with Moray, so when Denise’s intelligence captures Moray’s attention, jealousies arise.
The “downstairs” on “The Paradise” also includes a chatty fellow at the drapery counter named Sam (Stephen Wight) who may be sweet on Denise but who gets caught up with a troubled woman of higher standing, one of Katherine’s friends.
Issues of class are central to the series, as Denise strives to rise, as the wealthy women begin to mix with the mainstream, as we wonder about Moray’s background and whether earning money as a self-made businessman and being born into money are incompatible circumstances. Moray is a particularly intriguing figure, as his hunger to grow The Paradise and succeed seems to be born out of a deep psychological need, a need that Elliott makes us want to understand. In “Mr. Selfridge,” Jeremy Piven’s more bombastic store-owner character is motivated by American greed, which is far less interesting. When Moray says to Lord Glendenning, “I deal in appetite,” he’s giving a sales pitch as well as nodding to a hidden part of his character. He is a pioneering man who wants to make paradise into a place of commerce.
I’m not sure how creator Bill Gallagher’s series will maintain the appeal of the two-hour premiere, Sunday at 9, for six subsequent hourlong episodes — never mind for a full second season, since the show has already aired in the UK and been renewed. But then even Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” has struggled with that task, as he enters his fourth round. Not that “The Paradise” is the new “Downton Abbey.”