Monday, September 15, 2014

TV Review: The Paradise

The Paradise is a recent BBC production, (very loosely) based on a novel by Emile Zola, though one would be hard-pressed to find any trace of Zola's trademark naturalism. The show follows the staff at a luxurious department store in Victorian England, a veritable smorgasbord of sumptuous dainties and fashions. Joanna Vanderham, looking like a china doll with her long blonde hair, baby blue eyes, and porcelain skin, plays Denise, a young country girl who takes a job as a shopgirl at the Paradise, while Emun Elliot (looking astonishingly like Robert Downey, Jr.) plays John Moray, the owner and one might almost say impresario of the luxurious retail establishment.

The series at times plays like a love letter to capitalism, idolizing entrepreneurial business acumen and salesmanship, but its depiction is complicated by its detailed portrayal of class politics in Victorian England. By setting the series in a department store ("the new church - commerce" as Moray says), the rather confusing labyrinth of intercourse between the monied and working classes is amply explored. This aspect of the series is one of the most fascinating. While the sympathy towards the working classes and those who have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, like Moray, is certainly a product of our own times, the aristocratic characters are given their full due and their own class dilemmas are portrayed without malice or outright condemnation.

The show is most striking in its depiction of gender roles of the time, particularly in showing how women were constrained to do what the men in their lives wished of them, and how they were punished when they attempted to take their own way. Moray's main love interest, Katharine (Elaine Cassidy), a lady of high birth and in his words, a "confection of froth, frivolity, and fashion," is an example. Her father (Patrick Malahide) dislikes both Moray and his daughter's reaction to her lover, while Moray, though certainly attracted, holds her at arm's length and refuses to commit to an engagement. Katharine herself wants to love and be loved, to be happy in the marriage of her choosing. Although this part of the plot is undeniably romantic, the influences of social class, money, and contractual entanglements make it far more interesting than the average love story.

Far more interesting is the interplay between Denise and Miss Audrey (Sarah Lancashire), head of ladies' wear. Conversations between Miss Audrey and Denise often start as seeming commiseration, with both women deeply driven by their professional ambitions, but their ability to relate to each other is constantly undermined by the fact that they are both entirely under the power of the men around them. Even as Miss Audrey notes, "A babe in your arms is not fulfillment," and agrees with Denise that, "There's too much else first," she is so threatened by Denise's talent as a businesswoman that she forbids her to share her ideas. And yet even in the midst of their professional rivalry, Miss Audrey does everything she can to shore up Denise's resolve and not give up on her ambitions by allowing herself a romantic liaison, which in that time period would have signaled the inevitable end of her career. Though she is an undeniably prickly character, by the end of the series Miss Audrey was my favorite.

Denise, despite being full of innovative ideas for business, is forced to rely on the men around her to implement them, pitching her ideas and allowing others to take credit for them, even going so far in one instance as to write a formal business announcement for her uncle. At the end of the first episode she tells her friend, "I don't want to marry Moray - I want to be him." The series is not quite boldly feminist enough to follow this idea as wholeheartedly as one might wish, but Denise's conflicts are often between a desire for professional success and a desire to be kind to others, and not always between her career and romance. It is also Denise who sums up most clearly current pop-feminist ideology: "You say you've never regretted your choice, but what if you didn't have to choose? What if you could have had both?" These are good questions, worthy of being asked, but they are much more the stuff of current politics than the feminist politics of the time.

If the show has a flaw, it is that Denise is so angelic as to be nearly impossible and that Moray, in responding to her, is perhaps too readily understanding, but given that the show inevitably has a fantastic quality, this over-perfection can be forgiven, particularly since these perfections of character clash with pragmatic considerations and in fact create more conflict. The Paradise, like most television dramas, tends to be intensely dramatic, but the writers are savvy enough to focus on class conflict, business maneuvering, and the difficulties of friendship in an essentially competitive atmosphere, though naturally romantic conflicts are present, as well as suspicions of murder and abuse.

The dialogue is far superior to that of most other period shows; although there are occasionally slips in historical accuracy, overall the style, syntax, and vocabulary are of the period (Downton Abbey on the other hand fails utterly in this arena). As budgets for television rise, more period shows are being produced and ever more sumptuously: Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife, The Tudors and The Borgias, Mad Men and Masters of Sex, to mention only a few. The Paradise, with its emphasis on luxury and commerce, is particularly stunning from a production and costume design point of view, but the extraordinary detail, for instance in the display cases of the various departments of the store, is quite exquisite, indeed almost fetishistic, and for that alone, the show is well worth watching for anyone interested in fashion, design, or Victorian aesthetics.

The first season of The Paradise is currently available for streaming on Netflix. There is as yet no announcement of a date for the United States release of the second season.

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