Since launching in January, various critics have commented about the similarities between Mr. Selfridge and ITV’s other period drama Downton Abbey. However, while Mr. Selfridge does feel like Downton with till rolls, it has one difference that unfortunately seems to hinder rather than help it; Selfridge is based on (an admittedly embellished) reality, unlike Downton, which is an entirely fictitious tale set against a real world backdrop. This veracity means that the emotional tension the writers have tried to create in the eponymous character’s story is lost because we already know theoutcome.
That’s not to say that the show doesn’t have storylines that can capture our attention; the writers have cleverly built up a strong narrative arc for the loveable Agnes Towler that has a lot of potential (even if her relationship with Victor Colleano feels like a lazy rehash of the love story between Mr. Bates and Anna in Downton). Plus, with a roster of secondary characters so large it would make your head spin if you tried to remember all of them, the writers aren’t low on material; they just need to capitalize on it more. The relationship between Mr. Grove and Miss Mardle for example, needs to feel like more than the afterthought it currently does.
The problem though, lies in the name of the show; Mr. Selfridge is about Harry Selfridge, the retail pioneer who changed shopping as we know it… and that’s the problem, we do know it! Episode 1 of Selfridge chronicled the problems Harry had trying to open his store, but the episode rested on us wondering whether he would or would not be able to get his extraordinary venture off the ground. Of course, all it takes is a short walk down Oxford Street to know that he did manage it. In the most recent episode, the show ended with (SPOILER ALERT!) a car crash and the viewer wondering whether Selfridge is dead or not… but we know already that he isn’t. Even if your knowledge on the subject is only basic like mine, it’s hard to feel any sort of emotional anxiety towards a character whose future you already know is safe.
Thankfully though, Mr. Selfridge does have an ace card up his sleeve that will certainly keep me watching for the time being; it is a show made up of a fine ensemble cast, all of whom give brilliant performances. Jeremy Piven may portray Selfridge as a larger than life individual, but given what he does for a living, it never feels out of place or overdone. Katharine Kelly is show stealing as the scheming Lady Mae, while Aisling Loftus manages to perfectly balance innocence with strength and make Agnes worthy of being the pivotal character she has become.
Will this be enough to hold people’s interest in Mr. Selfridge, or will reality prematurely kill off the innovative retailer? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure, if the writers don’t start making more of their fantastic wider cast, the show will suffer. Maybe the real solution would be to change the name; simply calling it Selfridge’s would certainly, like the retailer itself, open up many more doors than it would close.