The Ladies’ Paradise: Based on the same Emile Zola novel that inspired the Victorian era BBC series The Paradise, this stylish Italian-language romance drama follows Teresa Iorio, a young woman who leaves her rural Sicilian hometown for Milan. Teresa finds work–and much more–at a newly opened department store.

It took a moment for me to ease into the 1950s setting, but once I did, I couldn’t wait to tune in to the next episode of The Ladies’ Paradise

The Ladies' Paradise, courtesy Rai TV

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Modern Italy came into being in the 50s, the decade of the economic miracle. There was work for everyone, renewed confidence in the future, and the country was driven forward on a wave of hope. The consumption habits of Italians were radically transformed, as were their social behaviors and core values.

Inspired by Italy’s past and loosely based on Emile Zola’s Au bonheur des dames, the period drama The Ladies’ Paradise follows the birth of a large clothing store in the centre of Milan. The store, Il Paradiso delle Signore, was built from the desire to do something which had never been done before: to put quality clothing, beauty and luxury within everyone’s grasp. Using Italy’s talent and creativity, mass production became a way to participate in international trade. The revolutionary The Paradiso delle Signore became the place for beauty and modernity.

The store’s founder is Pietro Mori, a handsome risk-taking pioneer who lived in the United States and returned to Italy with an innovative view of trade and communication. He’s also a man with a mysterious past, a troubled relationship with love, and a few enemies.

The Ladies' Paradise, courtesy Rai TV

The workers at The Paradiso delle Signore are mostly women – beautiful, charming, and smiling – but one young woman stands out. Like the others, Teresa Iorio is beautiful, but she’s also a courageous newcomer from the South, determined to rebel against a predestined life.

Teresa and Mori are our protagonists. Around them are many other vibrant characters, all driven by the desire to be free, to live a life which gives them economic security and serenity in their private lives.

The Ladies' Paradise, courtesy Rai TV

Through their experiences, The Ladies’ Paradise strives to tell the tale of the rebirth of Italy. Despite this lofty goal, for the first few episodes I thought this delightful period drama was mostly fluff, something easy to watch that dwelled pleasantly enough on the surface.

The Ladies’ Paradise initially felt like a strange combination of The Paradise, Mad Men and the modern day television series Felicity. That last part of the mix wasn’t just because Teresa’s looks reminded me of Felicity, but it was because of her wide-eyed, spirited bravado as she set off to conquer the world.

The period drama is peppy and is filled with kindness among friends, and with pretty things and places. It has little sporty cars and soapy twists. I started watching The Ladies’ Paradise during a particularly busy week and throughout my day I found myself anticipating the moment when I would put my feet up and slip away into this easy world.

In the days following, Italian words and phrases spontaneously slid off my tongue: insieme (together), che cosa? (what thing?), non troppo (not too much), Mi dispiace (I’m sorry). I contemplated wearing a high ponytail and wondered if I still owned pumps.

Soon after, I realized I was thinking about the characters while I was doing the laundry, or walking the dog. I wasn’t examining the characters so I could write about them. Instead, I was feeling concern, a connection to individuals as if they were in my life. Some characters were friends, and I wanted to talk with them about their joys and struggles. Others, I wanted to warn my friends about; they were people to stay away from.

When I was little, my grandmother regularly watched what she called her “story.” It was a daytime soap opera, and it seemed silly to me, in its hyper-real drama. She told me how one of the stars who played the home wrecker on her show had to go to the grocery store in disguise. Women who were caught up in the story would harass her and yell at her to leave so-and-so’s husband alone. They got so involved in the soap that they couldn’t see this woman as an actress playing her part.

Thankfully I never slipped into that terrain, but The Ladies’ Paradise was expertly agile in drawing me in, through empathy and anticipation of what I wanted to see happen next.

The Ladies' Paradise, courtesy Rai TV

No one is perfect in The Ladies’ Paradise, and though there are many touching and tender moments, the main structure is a steady feed of drama wrought with human frailty and necessary secrets.

Each episode ups the dramatic tension, and becomes more suspenseful. There’s romance, unrequited love, impossible choices to be made, rivalry, scandal and passion. The costumes by Chiara Ferrantini never take a false step, and the shots of Milan are inviting. There’s heartbreak and hope, and a terrific Jane Eyre reference.

Just when I think I know how Season 1 is going to end… an audible gasp comes from my lips. The end is just the beginning, and that’s just as it should be because Season 2 is even better than the first.

Watch Season 1 now.

A third season of the Rai TV drama will air in Italy beginning in September, 2018, but the series is being filmed in Milan, with a new soap opera like format. Season 3 will air in 45 minute long segments, 5 times a week, for a total of 180 episodes. Sadly our protagonists Pietro Mori (Giuseppe Zeno) and Teresa Iorio (Giusy Buscemi) won’t be continuing with The Ladies’ Paradise.

Reportedly the new lead characters will be Vittorio Conti (Alessandro Tersigni) and Andreina (Alice Torriani) when the series transitions to daytime television. New characters will be added, to be played by Roberto Farnesi, Gloria Radulescu, Giorgio Lupano, Vanessa Gravina, Neva Leoni, Giulio Corso and Francesco Maccarinelli.

Whether or not the show will still be worth watching remains to be seen, but even if it is not, the two existing seasons of the period drama are well worth your time.

In Italian with English subtitles.

Starring Giuseppe Zeno, Giusy Buscemi, Alessandro Tersigni, Christiane Filangieri, Giulia Vecchio.

Also known as Il Paradiso Delle Signore.

Not rated.

Note: Fans of The Paradise (BBC) will likely enjoy this new take on the 1883 Emile Zola novel. It’s not as wholesome as it’s predecessor, but it’s still pretty tame: a bikini is a daring thing, and a girl’s virtue is everything. There are moments with violence, and while the sex scenes aren’t explicit, there are a few encounters with a little nudity in one. Mostly we see just passionate kissing, but serious adult issues are explored, making this one to watch without the kids.

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