The fairly new ITV series Mr Selfridge follows the true story of Harry Gordon Selfridge, department store revolutionary. The American moved to London, founded, and managed Selfridge & Co, and forever changed the way the world shops. The talented cast includes Katherine Kelly, Aisling Loftus, Frances O’Connor (love her!) as Mrs. Selfridge, and Jeremy Piven as Mr. Selfridge. The first season aired this spring with 8 episodes, with a second season set for 2014. The show centers not only around the history and innovations of the store, but also the personal lives of the Selfridges and of several key employees, such as the ambitious shop girl Agnes Towler, window display artist Henri Leclair, chief of staff Mr. Grove, and aspiring entrepreneur Victor.
The excitement of the shopping world in London in the early 1900s is contagious, and the personal drama that the energetic Selfridge kindles is not as intense as, say, Downton Abbey or Mad Men, but it has a realistic quality that the melodramatic Downton Abbey cannot boast. PBS advertised Mr Selfridge as something to stave off Downton Abbey withdrawal, and as another British-made Edwardian period drama, there are many similarities. However, I would boldly say that I enjoyed Mr Selfridge more than I enjoyed the most recent season of Downton Abbey. Because Mr Selfridge is based on historical people and their real lives, the characters are more relatable and much less irritating. *cough Lady Mary cough* The characters of Mr Selfridge are less self-pitying and self-engrossed than the DA bunch, making the show more upbeat even when unfortunate circumstances arise.
Most other critics of the show, including this NY Times reviewer and this Boston Globe reviewer, would disagree with me when I say Mr Selfridge is in many ways better than Downton Abbey. They have called Mr Selfridge a guilty pleasure that lacks the focus and character depth of DA. I say they are equally guilt-free entertainment. Pretty Little Liars and The Big Bang Theory are guilt-worthy TV shows; the loosely historic Mr Selfridge is not. While the quality of acting in Mr Selfridge is something to be desired at times, I thought that certain characters were well-done, including Agnes Towler and Rose Selfridge. Actor Jeremy Piven seemed out-of-place playing the lively salesman at first, but he grew into the role when the darker and more personal sides of Harry Gordon Selfridge were explored. By the end, I almost didn’t mind that there was no Maggie Smith.
From a feminist criticism perspective, Mr Selfridge does a remarkable job of expressing the powerlessness of women of all classes and situations of the time. For example, even the highly persuasive and slightly conniving Lady Mae, with all her personal connections and love affairs, relies on her absent husband’s consent in all monetary affairs. In the end, Lady Mae, a former show girl, only gained her persuasive power over important men like Selfridge and Selfridge’s backer because of her husband’s status. The show also incorporates the British suffrage movement and depicts the store as a progressive supporter of the cause.
Overall, if you are a fan of Downton Abbey or other period dramas such as Mad Men, you should give Mr Selfridge a go. The second season will be set in 1914 leading up to World War I, so it will resemble Downton Abbey even more, if that’s your cup of tea.