“The Collection,” a seven-episode “Masterpiece” drama, is set in 1947 Paris, with the after-image of the Nazi occupation still clouding everyone’s vision. Compromised, broken, the city needs to look ahead to happier days, to shake off persistent memories of oppression and morally questionable wartime decisions.
That’s why a local investor approaches the head of the Sabine fashion house, Paul Sabine (Richard Coyle), with an offer. He will fund Paul’s new fashion line, if Paul — with the help of his troubled creative genius brother, Claude (Tom Riley) — can restore Paris’s reputation as the fashion capital of the world. That’s the basic story line in “The Collection,” which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., and it’s a good one; but it is embellished with many — too many — subplots about the members of the Sabine family, the fashion house workers, and one very American photographer whom Paul hires to photograph the new Sabine line. The show is overcrowded with mysteries, mysteries that may be intentionally but seem quite unintentionally muddy.
In other words, “The Collection” is, like so much high fashion, great to look at but harder to live in. The series perfectly captures the sad beauty of a city oppressed by guilt and suspicion, as well as the nascent promise of a new wave. Some of the images taken by the impossibly earnest photographer, Billy Novak (Max Deacon), are stunning, as we see the shy and mysterious Sabine house seamstress Nina (Jenna Thiam) model new dresses against the grays of Paris. The more comfortable the modest Nina grows with being photographed, the object of desire of both fashionistas and of the smitten Billy, the more we see a brighter future in store for the City of Light.
But then Paul’s marriage to an American, Helen (Mamie Gummer), has an emerging shadowy backstory, as does Nina, her mother, and Paul’s mother, Yvette, played with much wonderfully fey intrigue by Frances de la Tour. What were they all doing a few years earlier, before the occupation? And then there’s Claude, who is gay and gets beaten — for, of course, mysterious reasons — by his lover. Paul must keep Claude on track, to design the new collection, but Claude is deeply troubled and rebellious and makes that task difficult. Meanwhile, we see a body getting buried, for unknown reasons. Surely the answers to these whodunits and whodidits will surface; but their sheer number and the haziness with which they are presented — there are moments in which even who’s who isn’t clear — tended to dull my interest in ultimately finding out.
Paul is the center of the show, and Coyle — who at times looks remarkably like a young T.S. Eliot — inhabits the role elegantly. As he talks philosophically about fashion, and how it represents who we want to become, he is like a 1940s Don Draper. He has the charisma and ambiguity to satisfyingly occupy the center of a show — this show, if we could make a few alterations.
MASTERPIECE: THE COLLECTION
Starring: Richard Coyle, Stanley Townsend, Jenna Thiam, Max Deacon, Mamie Gummer, Frances de la Tour, Tom Riley. On WGBH-2, Sunday at 10 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.