March 31, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Mr. Selfridge”



MR. SELFRIDGE, the solace for PBS viewers between editions of Downton Abbey, has returned for its second season.  It lacks the dramatic urgency of Downton and is altogether a more conventional piece of work–it’s literally a show that, set in 1914, climaxes its opening hour by having someone step on a discarded newspaper that happens to have the headline “Archduke Franz Ferdinand Assassinated”–but it’s not an unpleasant way to spend an hour or two each week.

The Season 2 premiere, its first hour written by series creators/Executive Producers Andrew Davies and Kate Brooke, Hour 2 by Co-Executive Producer Kate O’Riordan (both hours are directed by Anthony Byrne), picks up 2 years after the finale of Season 1, and 5 years after Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) founded the department store that bears his name, changing the nature of London shopping.  That 5th anniversary heralds the return from the US of Harry’s wife Rose (Frances O’Connor), from whom Harry has been politely estranged since she decided she couldn’t live with his womanizing.  Harry’s striving protege Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus) also returns from her design training in Paris, ready to take on the post of Selfridge’s Head of Displays.

The premiere introduces a trio of new troublemakers to juice up the drama.  Harry’s investor and friend Lady Mae Loxley (Katherine Kelly) reveals her previously unseen husband (Aidan McArdle), a blackmailer, wifebeater and generally obnoxious lout so fiendish that they should have just gone ahead and given him a moustache to twirl.  (His existence makes absolutely no sense in the context of the Lady Mae we met last season, but whatever.)  Agnes, meanwhile, is bedeviled by the bitchy new Head of Fashion, Mr. Thackeray (Cal MacAninch).  For her part, Rose has a new BFF named Delphine Day (Polly Walker), who writes scandalous books, runs a nightclub that’s one step above a house of ill repute, and won’t make things any easier for Harry and Rose’s difficult marriage.

Mr. Selfridge keeps its various plots marching along at a brisk pace.  Agnes is instantly plunged back into her star-crossed relationship with Victor Colleano (Trystan Gravelle), who’s now Head of the store’s restaurant and who may or may not have acquired a girlfriend in Agnes’s absence.  Roger Grove (Tom Goodman-Hill), Head of Staff, has his hands more than full with 3 young children and a 4th on the way. Flirtatious Head of Cosmetics Kitty (Amy Beth Hayes) may have a real romance with journalist (and co-author of the play that publicly satirized Harry in Season 1) Frank Edwards (Samuel West).   Harry and Rose’s son Gordon is now a teenager (Greg Austin) who no sooner has gone to work at his father’s store–leaving school, to his mother’s despair–than he’s getting beaten up by union organizers who don’t appreciate how perfectly wonderful and caring Harry is to his employees.  And Mr. Crabb (Ron Cook), Harry’s stalwart number 2, is tasked with keeping it all under control.

None of this has a particularly strong dramatic impact, and having recently gone through World War I with the crew at Downton, the prospect of reliving it again at Selfridge’s has less than enormous appeal.  The almost exclusively positive spin on everything Harry Selfridge says and does, apart from his adulteries (the show is produced with the cooperation of the Selfridge family and store) can be a bit much.  Still, Mr. Selfridge is engaging enough in a pinch.  Piven’s bubbly Harry Selfridge is a mere shadow of his darker Ari on Entouragebut he remains fun to watch, and he gets good support from the large ensemble cast, especially Loftus and Cook.  The production design and costuming team do a fine job of recreating the setting of the store and its times.

Sunday nights are crammed with too much quality television these days for Mr. Selfridge to be anyone’s first choice.  It is, however, a perfectly reasonable candidate for DVR recording and eventual replay in a more leisurely part of the week.

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."