Judge Erich Asperschlager has buyer's remorse.
"Pile them up! I want Treasure Island in here, Aladdin's cave!"
With the latest season of Downton Abbey over and done, American PBS viewers have been looking for the next great period drama to curl up with on Sunday nights. There is a new contender for that crown in Mr. Selfridge—a gorgeous series about the early days of one of London's most famous department stores, and the brash American who brought it to life. Like Downton Abbey, it arrives on DVD during the middle of the series' run on PBS, giving eager viewers the chance to see the twists and turns earlier than their TV counterparts.
The ITV series, created by Andrew Davies and based on Lindy Woodhead's biography Shopping, Seduction, & Mr. Selfridge, is the story of American entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge (Jeremy Piven, Entourage) and the ambitious high-end department store he built in the heart of London in 1909. The series isn't a dramatic re-enactment of real events, but it's certainly dramatic—at times, too dramatic. Like a loud American pushing his way into polite British society, Mr. Selfridge isn't interested in nuance or decorum. Where Downton hid its high class soap opera tendencies well, Mr. Selfridge is up front about it. The accents are as posh as the corsets are tight, but there's no mistaking the show for educational television.
There's nothing wrong with that, of course. The public television set have just as much right to trashy primetime soaps as anyone else, and when that kind of thing is done well it can be fun. Downton wasn't a smash success because people like proper table service. Audiences tune in for the scandals, gossip, and affairs. There's plenty of all that in Mr. Selfridge—in the store, at the gentlemen's club, and in the Selfridge's own house. Some of the story arcs twist a few too many times over the course of the season, or are slow to get going, but there's enough meat to make up a full meal by the end of last episode.
It's clear through the 10 episodes of this inaugural season that Mr. Selfridge can't match the Crawley's sparkling wit. Although the production design is almost on par. It's a little odd that this show, set in 1909, deals with the same changing social issues that have only just hit postwar Downton. Chalk it up to big city life, I guess. There are cultural hurdles for women and the poor, but Selfridge is less about navigating society and the things characters say without saying them than it is a juicy romp with waistcoats and big floral hats.
Piven might not sound like the right choice to headline a British costume drama, but he gives a solid, if stiff, performance, supported by a talented cast. Maybe it's the accents, but there's nothing like an ensemble of British actors to elevate even the soapiest of material. Selfridge's affair with a famous actress (Zoë Tapper, Survivors) and his wife's (Frances O'Connor, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) almost-affair with a bohemian painter (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Raven) take up a lot of screentime. Their upstairs story is balanced by the downstairs drama among the store's staff, with secret affairs, embezzling, and jostling for promotions. Of the group, Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus, Oranges and Sunshine) emerges as one of the best characters. Like a British Peggy Olsen, she rises from sales associate to window designer with a love triangle thrown in for good measure. Selfridge also takes a page from The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, via a steady stream of famous historical visitors including King Edward, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Frank Woolworth, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who holds a seance for the staff. Sitcom stuff, but it keeps things lively.
If you're in it for the fashion and frills, Mr. Selfridge: Series One has plenty of that, too. Don't expect the wide open spaces and village charm of Downton Abbey. The bulk of the season takes place inside the store or inside the Selfridge house, but even in close quarters the show is brimming with style and packed with detail. The 1.85:1 transfer looks gorgeous even in standard def. The 2.0 stereo sound is more than enough for a TV drama. The set's lone extra is on disc three, the 26-minute "Behind the Scenes at Selfridges," which looks at the show from conception, to casting, costuming, and the enormous task of recreating the store on a cavernous set.
Don't let the Masterpiece Classics title fool you. Mr. Selfridge is a primetime soap opera with fancy accents and fancier hats. It's not as good as its manor-born PBS counterpart, but the window dressing is nice to look at.
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