BBC’s period drama, The Paradise, has all the right moves. Its sexuality is subtle and charming. Its characters are magnetic and distinct. Its scenes pop with color and vibrance.
Of course, it was cancelled after just two seasons.
In the fickle realm of international public television, viewership still reigns supreme and The Paradise couldn’t keep up with it’s rival department store drama Mr. Selfridge or the ubiquitous English drama, Downton Abbey. When the series hits its stride, however, The Paradise is an period drama with a powerful message about commerce, commitment, and British society, one that can easily compete and best its competitors. At its lowest points, however, it’s a predictable soap opera, with an awkward love triangle whose storybook ending doesn’t require retelling. Season two improves upon the skin-deep relationships built up in the first season, and ultimately reaches extraordinary heights by the series’ end. But, all the same, it’s not enough to save it from the axe of cancellation. Approaching season two with the mindset of a fixed ending will surely lessen the grief of its cancellation.
But, to misquote Shakespeare, I come to praise The Paradise and then to bury it. Unless an online petition to resurrect it for a third season is successful — doubtful, methinks — The Paradise has closed its doors for good.
When season one of The Paradise ended, John Moray (played with boyish charm and wit by Emun Elliott) finally opted to follow his heart instead of his head and left his bride-to-be, Katherine Glendenning (an icy and intense Elaine Cassidy) stranded at the altar moments before their wedding. Moray sought out the object of his affection, Denise Lovett (a doe-eyed and hypnotic Joanna Vanderham). The two lovers kissed ending a back-and-forth lover’s plot; repercussions were soon to follow in season two.
Season two of The Paradise could have easily picked up immediately after season one left off. But, smartly so, the story fast-forwards a year in the future, where a handful of highly effective plot points have already taken hold. Katherine’s father, Lord Glenndenning, has died, leaving The Paradise in the hands of his newly married daughter. This happens, however, not before John has been exiled to Paris in a shrewd move by her now-deceased father to punish and/or eliminate him for scorning his only daughter. Denise and John’s relationship is kept alive through love letters of the sappiest sort (“My dear Denise…”) until Katherine, who has inherited control of The Paradise with her husband Tom Weston (Ben Daniels), summons John back to help revive The Paradise’s fortunes. Tom’s daughter, Flora (an adorable Edie Whitehead), complicates matters for the new couple, since Flora’s ex-military father is clearly scarred from his wartime experiences and seeks something more substantial than frivolities — items The Paradise is full of — for his daughter’s upbringing.
The Paradise doesn’t begin with a bang as much as it lights a slow fuse. Smartly, characters and their predicaments are steadily reintroduced going about their daily routines in and out of the storefront. The lovers’ decision to break up a powerful wedding are now separated and forced to reconcile what their future might hold. Turns out stranding a wealthy bride at the altar has real consequences. John and Denise’s decision to squander the Glenndennings’ financial backing, and John’s decision to deny Katherine what she wants, forces them into literal and emotional exile and tests the strength of their love. This major plot point, however, is rectified within the first episode, as the lovers are reunited — but not before Katherine and Tom arrive at The Paradise to remind John who’s really in charge.
Tom seethes desperation and attempts, often in vain, to control the strong will of his new wife, Katherine. He soon discovers that the best way to control her is to control her affection for his daughter, Flora. In one especially terrible scene, Tom, enraged by his daughter’s lack of worldly knowledge (she doesn’t know when Columbus discovered America), throws her beloved doll, bought from The Paradise by Katherine, into a burning fireplace. The act happens offscreen, but its effect ripples throughout the episode, as Katherine tries desperately to rectify her husband’s awful act, and seeks John and Denise’s help to order a new doll. In season two, more than season one, Katherine is nearly always on the verge of breaking; her strong-willed facade starts to crack when struck against the immovable object that is her husband. Tom, too, carries physical and emotional scars with him, and their relationship is one built upon mistrust, ferocity, and appeasement. For them, it’s a battle of wills to see who can control whom, an exhausting emotional conflict that is terrible — and terribly entertaining — to witness.
Denise and John stand in contrast to Katherine and Tom, but their relationship starts to fray in small ways, as well. With the impending marriage of Miss Audrey (a terrifically funny Sarah Lancashire) to Denise’s father, Edmund, a new job for Head of Ladieswear opens up in Audrey’s absence. The shopgirls vie for the position, and John wishes to keep Denise from advancing into the role in order to lessen the appearance of favoritism. All of this is supposed to create a commentary on the role of women in the workplace and their lesser status when compared to men, but The Paradise runs much smoother when the series isn’t making grand attempts at social commentary. The strength of the show lies in its subtlety: the knowing glances John and Dense cast each other’s way, the way Katherine’s struggles are manifested in her eyes, the kindness of Dudley, John’s right-hand man at The Paradise, when he speaks to the shopgirls, Flora, and Denise. The scenery of The Paradise, along with the way its maze-like structure keeps the action moving along at a quick pace, is warm and inviting, as well. It’s a busy shop that offers a reprieve from the annoyances of daily life, yet it’s obvious onscreen that a growing economic gap is being fostered by its presence. The wealthy are able to shop The Paradise with ease, while struggling shopkeepers on the other side of the street scrape by and fret about their future and their social class status.
New characters arrive in season two, and then promptly exit. There appears to be no more time to develop anything other than the primary couples’ relationships. (Perhaps creators of The Paradise knew they were nearing the end.) A flirtatious Frenchwoman, Clemence (Branka Katic), whom John befriended in Paris appears for one episode to supply fireworks for Audrey and Edmund’s wedding. In a not-so-shocking twist, Clemence turns out to be a lesbian, a turn that stuns Denise’s small-town innocence. Wealthy backers appear, too, stirring the crux of the storyline in season two. John has always wished to own The Paradise, but his pauper social status has kept him from being able to — a fact that Tom delights in holding over his head. By the series finale, the fate of The Paradise and its owners hang in the balance, then, thankfully, resolved by the end to give the series a complete and satisfying resolution.
A series as strong as The Paradise certainly deserved a wider audience. The program’s television rival, Mr. Selfridge, may be more alluring and covers a similar storyline, but the weight of its seriousness pulls the show into murky, often silly, depths. As a series, The Paradise focused more on human relationships, the nuance of each character’s facial expressions, and the daily routines of its employees. Tellingly, several scenes take place in the worker’s dining hall, their small, upstairs store lodgings, and the loading bays outside the store, a nice touch that reinforces how much of an investment The Paradise made in its employees, also showing just how much the working class provides as the backbone to the shop’s elegance.
John and Denise ultimately come out on top, but not before traversing the routines of love. Their love didn’t conquer all, so to speak, but it definitely made The Paradise a charming series that deserves a good turn on the DVD player for new audiences.