Downton Abbey could have been a fluke. But Mr. Selfridge, the immediate followup, hints at a pattern. Masterpiece Theater is giving us original programming with quick pacing, great costumes, and soap opera romance. I’m not sure who’s watching Mr. Selfridge, but I can’t imagine liking Downton and not liking Selfridge. If anything, it’s even more accessible to an American audience, who knows Jeremy Piven, the show’s star, and the actress that plays his wife looks and acts suspiciously like Cora on Downton. The characters in the lesser classes feel like they’ve been pulled straight out of a Dickens novel—a fun one. As far as fashion, the show is set in the roaring 20’s, with all the incredible costumes that come along with that period.
I can’t say enough about the show. And Mr. Selfridge himself acts like a more flamboyant, showy version of Don Draper—the old-school Don, from season 1. He considers himself a family man, but he has a girl on the side. He’s a genius, he’s incredibly kind to a young woman he feels a kinship with, and he even has an alcoholic father. The show is set to a backdrop of the times. The conservative thinking, the cool clothes, and the newness of things we’re so used to now, like department stores. The battle for women’s rights rages, at one point, literally, outside the doors of the shop—and inside, as well. The store itself, really, was an empowering force for women of the era.
The craziest part of all this is the whole thing is based on a true story. I’m sure the side characters are completely fictional (no one would have written that stuff down), but the crux of who this guy was is real. So now Masterpiece Theater has me looking forward to… historical nonfiction? I know I haven’t changed. Have they? I looked back at some of the offerings from Masterpiece Theater. Even relative hits, like The Forsyte Saga and Pride and Prejudice, were adaptations of classic literature. I haven’t seen them, but I bet they’re good. It does seem, however, that they are intentionally opening their doors to auteurs, master craftsmen who are able to tell stories as well as the authors they’re so used to adapting from.
How refreshing! TV is certainly becoming the better medium. While the last shreds of true originality seem to be leaving the movie business as sequels and remakes become the rule, even the stodgiest, least willing to change corner of the medium is turning to truly original programming. They have certainly taken their cue from AMC, FX, and other cable channels offering premium content a la HBO, only with commercial breaks.
So I sit on the couch with my girlfriend and find myself crossing my fingers everyone else is watching this show. I can’t wait to see what happens next—not just to Mr. Selfridge, but to the genre that the show personifies, and to the medium as a whole.