May 18, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Mr. Selfridge”


MR. SELFRIDGE, which might as well be called “Downton Abbey Won’t Be Back For 10 Months, So What Else Are You Gonna Watch?”, concluded its second, very earnest season on PBS tonight.  World War I came to Mr. Selfridge this season, much as it had to Downton, and the result was a less bustling set of episodes that weren’t quite as much fun as the first season’s.  Still, the series (which has been renewed for a third season) continues to provide a moderate amount of absorbing old-fashioned melodrama.

Mr. Selfridge, which is produced with the cooperation of Selfridge’s department store, is by now firmly wedded to its notion of Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) as a fantasy figure of capitalist nobility, and that was even more true in Season 2.  This time around, Harry didn’t even cheat on his wife Rose (Frances O’Connor), who gradually forgave him for his adulteries in Season 1.  He was the very height of moral probity, unfailingly kind and considerate to his employees, a man who not just supported the workers who went to war and those who stayed behind, but genuinely cared about each of them as individuals.  (When, in an early episode, the specter of a labor union reared its ugly head at Selfridge’s, the organizers were branded as ungrateful, violent thugs.)  Harry wanted nothing more than to support the war effort in every way, and even–fictionally–was used by the British government on a mission behind enemy lines in Germany.  Piven delivered all this foursquare goodness convincingly enough, but while he shouldn’t be asked to play Ari on Entourage for the rest of his career, this role provided him with very little of the kind of material he does best.

Since Harry had no internal conflict in Season 2 to speak of, he was given an oily antagonist:  Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle), the previously unseen husband of Harry’s benefactor Lady Mae Loxley (Katherine Kelly).  Loxley was so evil that McArdle might as well have delivered every line with a twirl of his invisible moustache:  he was a war profiteer, a blackmailer, a cheat and an abuser of his wife.  The 2-hour season finale (Hour 1 written by Dan Sefton; Hour 2 by Co-Executive Producer Kate O’Riordan; both hours directed by Rob Evens) finally gave Loxley his comeuppance, although not very convincingly, as Harry marched into a private meeting at the House of Lords to brandish proof (which, not to be picky, could easily have been faked) that it was Loxley and not he who had given a government contract for wartime boots to a subpar manufacturer in exchange for bribes–a scandal that never happened in real life.

A lot of Mr. Selfridge‘s season was based on delayed audience gratification, not just Loxley’s defeat but also the eventual reveal that Rose’s “friend,” nightclub owner Delphine (Polly Walker) was the schemer she’d always seemed to be, secretly planning to steal Harry away.  (Actually, she seemed a better match for him than pallid Rose, who discovered at the end of Season 2 that she was dying of a lung ailment, but no matter.)  The same principle applied to the series’ other leading character, Head of Display Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), who spent all but the last minutes of the season sticking with sturdy restaurant manager Victor (Trystan Gravelle) over brooding, artistic and French Henri (Gregory Fitoussi), before Victor selflessly broke their engagement so that Agnes would go to her true love–which, not so incidentally, meant she could continue to work at Selfridge’s.  Agnes is by far Mr. Selfridge‘s most appealing character, but even she was duller this year than last, with her upward progress at the store hardly impeded at all by the obstacle put in her way, the bitchy new Head of Fashion Mr. Thackeray (Cal MacAninch).  Instead, the season concentrated almost completely on her romantic life.

The subsidiary stories were also of true love, as flirty Kitty (Amy Beth Hayes) danced about with reporter Frank Edwards (Samuel West), and one-time old maid Miss Mardle (Amanda Abbington) wound up with not just inherited riches but a hot young Belgian violinist lover in war refugee Florian (Oliver Farnworth).

Aside from Rose’s illness, Season 2 ended blissfully for just about every lead character on Mr. Selfridge, and one hopes that Season 3 won’t be all about Harry and Rose’s grace under the stress of her fading condition.  Season 2, while still engaging enough, pushed the limits of its flimsy conflicts, and any additional brave sacrifice may be too much.  Although PBS doesn’t release ratings (except when Downton Abbey is on), clearly Mr. Selfridge serves its purpose for the network.  However, it’s not clear how much anyone would miss it if it were gone.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."