April 1, 2013




To get the obvious over with quickly, MR. SELFRIDGE, PBS’s attempt to find a partner for its blockbuster hit Downton Abbey, isn’t in that show’s league.  Instead it’s a merely pleasant traipse down another corner of early 20th-century British history.

While Downton offers a cornucopia of sharply-drawn characters and compelling plotlines, Selfridge has only one real story to tell, that of the title character, the American Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven), who came to London in 1908 and revolutionized its world of shopping with showmanship and moxie, bringing glamour and personal service to the previously staid British mode of sales.  As conceived and presented in the show, Selfridge is a more gentlemanly and idealistic (and certainly less foul-mouthed) version of Piven’s Ari Gold character from Entourage, overflowing with energy and ambitious ideas, and usually just one step ahead of the wolves.

Selfridge has a graciously long-suffering wife (Frances O’Connor), a showgirl mistress (Zoe Tapper), a rich socialite investor (Katherine Kelly), and assorted co-workers to tell him he’s mad and that he’ll never get away with his latest crazy idea (he does), but in its first two hours, the only other substantial character in the show is Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), an earnestly striving shopgirl who goes to work for Harry in order to better herself and her brother’s lot in life, standing in for the working women who discovered a new world at Selfridge’s.

The way the series is constructed, the weight of its drama falls squarely on Piven’s shoulders, but he comes off as too contemporary and tentative, vaguely ill at ease–you almost expect the camera to pull back and show the soundstage around him, with Piven really playing a modern actor trying to cope with the role of Harry Selfridge.  The script, by series creator and British TV stalwart Andrew Davies (Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Bleak House and the original BBC version of House of Cards are among his credits), so far has little convincing depth.  Every so often Harry will break off from his confident pep talks to stare off in the distance so we’ll know he’s secretly worried (Piven often looks in these moments like he’s about to break into song), and a late, brief reference to thoughts of suicide seems so abrupt that one doesn’t know what to make of it.  Loftus is capable as Agnes, but the rest of the cast so far has little to do but look handsome in their costumes and provide that British drama sheen.

Of course, that sheen isn’t to be dismissed lightly.  Director Jon Jones prowls his camera around the sumptuous 2-story recreation of Selfridge’s entrance hall enough to make viewers drool, and there are the usual countless period details, including a full-size vintage airplane whose pilot Harry charms into serving as a store spokesperson.  (Although the musical number we see performed by Selfridge’s showgirl friend seems somewhat too modern for 1908.)   No one does history porn quite like the British.

Mr. Selfridge is moderately entertaining, but there’s little in the first two hours to make one hungry for the next episode.  Despite all its deluxe accessories, too much of it feels more like big box store material, the comparative Wal-Mart to Downton Abbey‘s Tiffany’s.

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."