May 20, 2013



Think of MR. SELFRIDGE as the methadone to Downton Abbey‘s pure heroin.  It’s not remotely the real thing, but it serves to feed the craving through these many months until Downton returns in January 2014.  Although both are period pieces set in early 20th-century England, Downton has a distinctly, irresistibly modern pace and urgency, while Selfridge is old-fashioned, even stodgy, in the style of vintage Masterpiece Theatre.

The final 2-hour US installment of this season’s Selfridge (actually the last 2 episodes of the UK version strung together), the first section written by Kate O’Riordan and the second by series creator Andrew Davies, both directed by Michael Keillor, unfortunately accentuated what has been the weakest part of Mr. Selfridge–Selfridge himself.  Played by Jeremy Piven, the pioneering American department store owner here is a wispy shadow of Piven’s Ari from Entourage, driven and ambitious but altogether sweeter and more measured (and not at all obscene).  His one shortcoming is a tendency to sleep with other women, most notably showgirl Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper), to the misery of his long-suffering wife Rose (Frances O’Connor).  Rose’s disaffection led to her entertaining the interest of young painter Temple (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who turned out to be a rotter, trying to charm her teenage daughter Rosalie (Poppy Lee) when he couldn’t have Rose herself.  Anyway, all of this came to a head in the finale when Harry, Rose and Rosalie were all invited (implausibly enough, by the King of England) to opening night of Ellen Love’s new play, which turned out to be a thinly veiled attack on Harry and his benefactress Lady Mae (Katherine Kelly).  That public exposure led Rose, with Rosalie and the other children in tow, to leave Harry for Chicago in the cliffhanger conclusion.  None of these relationships had any heat in the first place, and it was hard to miss Rose when she left.

The emphasis on Harry and Rose meant that the slightly more interesting stories among Harry’s employees were truncated for the finale.  Our more or less heroine, Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus) finally got together with true love Victor (Trystan Gravelle), after they’d both had trysts, Agnes with dashing French window-designer Henri (Gregory Fitoussi)–who also left Harry at episode’s end, for the greener pastures of New York–and Victor with Lady Mae.  Poor Miss Mardle (Amanda Abbington) had a great deal of insult added to her injury when Chief of Staff Grove (Tom Goodman-Hill), whose secret lover she’d been through all the years of his wife’s illness, responded to becoming a widower by almost instantly getting engaged to younger model Doris (Lauren Crace).  Agnes’s brother George (Callum Callaghan), though, got his wish to go on a date with perky Kitty Hawkins (Amy Beth Hayes).  These stories were at least satisfying in a soapy way, if not particularly gripping.

Mr. Selfridge is handsomely produced, with lovely recreations of large sections of the Selfridge & Co department store, and the acting is uniformly fine in that British way.  But something is very wrong with a series when its best episode is the one without its leading player, an hour midway through the season when Harry was in a coma after an auto accident (with hallucinations of his mean, dead father) and the rest of the staff had to step up in his absence.  The rest of the time, the show is so sedate that it might as well be an authorized biography.

PBS only releases its ratings when it has something to boast about (i.e., when Downton is on), so all we know is that it did well enough to be picked up again when its second British season resumes, reportedly with a time jump of about 5 years to World War I-era 1914.  Perhaps the oncoming war will boost the show’s energy next time around.  For now, it’s just a cheap fix for viewers hooked on the genuine article.


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."