“Mr. Selfridge” is an eight-part, roughly eight-hour mini-series about the American businessman who opened the revolutionary London department store Selfridges in 1909. It’s also a soldier in the current bloody war for period-drama domination between the British television networks ITV and BBC, whose combatants include “Downton Abbey” and “Mr. Selfridge,” on ITV, and “Call the Midwife” and “The Paradise,” on BBC. (Already dead: BBC’s flat-footed “Upstairs Downstairs” sequel.)
After doing service in Britain, these shows often take R&R on PBS, which is where “Mr. Selfridge” shows up on Sunday night as part of “Masterpiece Classic.” American viewers will immediately compare it with “Downton Abbey” and note some things that are lacking: tailcoats, Maggie Smith, a castle. “Mr. Selfridge” is a more commercial and proletarian affair, focused on innovations in window dressing and the love lives of shop girls, music hall stars and grubby capitalists.
That shouldn’t be a problem for the eager consumer of Edwardian period detail: the show is stuffed with no doubt carefully researched costumes and décor, including reproductions of the original Selfridges interiors.
It is a problem, though, that “Mr. Selfridge” also lacks the dramatic focus and attention to details of character, story and dialogue that make “Downton Abbey” a nonguilty pleasure. The packaging is attractive, but the goods are chintzy.
This is particularly disappointing, given that “Mr. Selfridge” was created and partly written by the generally reliable Andrew Davies (“Bleak House,” “Little Dorrit”), who ranks with the “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes as a top purveyor of literate English nostalgia. Here he seems to have treated the project as work for hire, turning the biography of an intriguing figure in the history of modern merchandising into a so-so, meandering soap opera that reduces its central character to a set of clichés about missing fathers and American energy and egalitarianism.
Playing Harry Gordon Selfridge, in a highly promoted bit of casting, is Jeremy Piven, making his first television appearance since the end of HBO’s “Entourage.” The born salesman and promoter (and serial adulterer) Selfridge might seem like a natural part for Mr. Piven, a precursor of the manic talent agent he played so memorably on “Entourage.” But most of the time he looks uncomfortable and thoroughly miscast.
The conception of the role is clearly that Selfridge is constantly acting, putting on a show for family, lovers, customers, nervous investors. That’s a viable, if familiar, idea, but it doesn’t work when the performance within the performance isn’t convincing, and Mr. Piven’s Selfridge comes off as hollow and nervous — it’s hard to see how he persuades anyone, let alone everyone he comes into contact with, to believe in him so intensely.
Mr. Piven has good moments when Selfridge is offstage, so to speak, like a scene in which he goes to the shabby apartment of the show’s principal female character, the sales clerk Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), to rehire her after she has quit in humiliation over the shenanigans of her drunken father.
That description indicates the kind of melodramatic fabric that has been manufactured to fill the spaces around the interesting bits of history, like Selfridge’s crucial exploitation of Louis Blériot’s cross-Channel flight in 1909. (He exhibited the actual airplane in the store, drawing huge crowds.)
It’s hard to see the salesmanship because you’re constantly being distracted by one of the not very exciting love affairs, of which there are four or five at any given moment.
These liaisons, particularly the chaste triangle involving Agnes, the hot-blooded waiter Victor (Trystan Gravelle) and the dashing window designer Henri LeClair (Grégory Fitoussi), may draw an audience that’s happy with any kind of sentimental romance that’s dressed up in wool and lace from an earlier era. But “Mr. Selfridge” would have been a better show if it had actually been about a department store.
On PBS stations on Sunday nights (check local listings).
Produced by ITV Studios and Masterpiece. Created and written by Andrew Davies, adapted from the novel “Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge,” by Lindy Woodhead; directed by Jon Jones; Mr. Davies and Kate Lewis, executive producers; Rebecca Eaton, executive producer for Masterpiece; Jeremy Piven and Chrissy Skinns, producers; Carmel Maloney, co-producer.
WITH: Jeremy Piven (Harry Gordon Selfridge), Zoë Tapper (Ellen Love), Frances O’Connor (Rose Selfridge), Grégory Fitoussi (Henri LeClair), Aisling Loftus (Agnes Towler), Katherine Kelly (Lady Mae), Ron Cook (Mr. Crabb), Amanda Abbington (Miss Mardle), Trystan Gravelle (Victor) and Samuel West (Frank Edwards).
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