PBS recently finished airing the first season of Mr. Selfridge, a period drama based on the true story of the American self-made man that created one of the first English department stores–a store that still stands today, though it is far too expensive for me to have purchased anything there. The show aired early in the year in the UK on ITV, and did well enough that they have ordered a second season, to premiere in 2014.
I was concerned about Jeremy Piven, because he seems so slimy in most of his roles, but I really loved him and I loved this show. Piven plays the eponymous lead, Harry Gordon Selfridge. The show begins with him arriving on the scene in London to scare up funding and publicity for a store that hasn’t even been built, on the ‘unfashionable end’ of Oxford Street. Ten episodes make up the first season, most of which revolve around Harry and his home family, and Harry and his work family. He has an endless amount of women causing problems in his life–to be fair, most of the problems are his own doing.
There’s his patient and loving wife Mary clutching his arm. She’s played by the wonderful Frances O’Conner, and endures quite a lot from a man who does love her, but is not the best at being faithful or attentive. On the left is Lady Mae, a connected noblewoman who Harry relies on to help him secure funding and fix publicity problems. She is not the sort of woman you want to owe favors to, but she is the exact woman you do owe favors to if you want to get anything done.
On the right is Ellen Love, a showgirl with whom Harry begins an affair. She is everything pathetic and typical about the other woman. Nothing but trouble, hopelessly naive and convinced Harry will leave his wife and children to be with her.
The work family focuses on a few main characters. The most important of which is Agnes Towler. She ends up in a love triangle (square? some shape…) with two men who work at the store, Victor (on the right) and Henri (on the left). Agnes is probably my favorite character in the show. She supports herself and her brother, she’s strong and independent, and she’s quite creative. My only slight gripe with her is that it’s never quite obvious to me why all the men are so violently in love with her. Still, I enjoyed watching her story.
Also central to the action are Mr. Grove, the chief of staff at the department store, and Miss Mardle, the Accessories supervisor.
Though Mr. Grove is married to a very sick woman, the two are having an affair. What we later learn is a very long-term affair. Of course, no one at the department store can know this as it is against the rules. Mr. Grove proved himself to be a thorough scoundrel in my book, more and more with each episode. Miss Mardle was of interest to me, partially because she is played by Amanda Abbington, who is the ‘long-term partner’ of Martin Freeman. Damn her. Anyway, she will be in the next season of Sherlock, so I wanted to see her act in something. She was good. Though the character is a very demur and repressed woman, she did convey a lot of depth of emotion.
Everyone in this show seems to have a secret relationship. Harry and Ellen Love, Agnes and Henri, Mr. Grove and Miss Mardle, Agnes and Victor, Victor and Lady Mae…think of a combination and they’ve gone there. I was most interested in Mrs. Selfridge’s relationship with a young painter, Roderick Temple, who bore a striking resemblance to a 6’5″ version of Neville Longbottom.
Who knew Neville Longbottom would grow up to look like that? Anyway, his resemblance to Neville made me predisposed to like him. Plus, artist points. But he proves himself to be a scoundrel as well–I’m detecting a theme. None of these men are to be trusted!
Obviously all of these love stories have elements of the soap opera tropes about them. I think what sets this show apart is the setting, the time and place and industry in which it is set.
It lends itself very naturally to comparisons with Downton Abbey–there are love stories, infidelities, a multitude of class interactions, and they are occupying the same piece of history–but they are very different shows. DA is, at its heart, a soap opera. Everyone is either entirely good or entirely despicable (the only exception I can think of to this is O’Brien, but her brief foray into being a good person ended after a few episodes, so it barely counts). The tension revolves around whether a couple will end up together, and which person Julian Fellowes will kill off. The other big source of tension is the never-ending struggle to maintain the status quo. The big house, the landed gentry, the old Tory way of life in the country.
Mr. Selfridge could not be more different. The fact that they exist at the same time, are set in the same time and in the same country is something I had to keep reminding myself. Mr. Selfridge is actually set earlier than DA, which is even more strange. The show features a main character that wants to embrace everything new and modern. In the 1910s, that means automobiles, explorers, ready-to-wear clothing, cosmetics for respectable women (gasp!), and a new-found love of shopping. The first episode shows Harry Selfridge going into a typical London shop. Everything was kept under the counter, and you had to ask to look at individual items. Selfridge wanted his customers to be able to see and touch the products, so that they might be enticed to buy something other than what they needed. He really understood what the experience of shopping could be. Part of me wishes society hadn’t taken this turn to the ridiculously commercial and superficial, but it would have happened with our without Harry Selfridge. I digress, but my point is that it is fascinating from a historical perspective to see these changes toward a modern society and away from the 19th century.
I think that facet, ultimately, is what made me enjoy this show (perhaps, though I am afraid to say it) more than Downton Abbey. I really looked forward to watching it every week, and am looking forward to a second season.