PBS is running Mr. Selfridge at the moment, yet another ITV historical drama set in early twentieth century Britain. The first episode of the second series aired on Sunday during Masterpiece Theatre, because PBS has to air something British in the 40 weeks each year that they’re not putting Downton Abbey in that slot. Basically, it’s set in the same era: first series was 1909, second will be in 1914 because who can resist throwing the Great War into their costume dramas?
To sum up: it’s a poor man’s Downton Abbey. And that’s slightly sad because Downton Abbey is pretty much a poor man’s period drama in the first place, so we’re getting down to the works that are derivative of the works already dismissed as derivative. It’s just derivative turtles all the way down at this point, and they’re all wearing cravats.
So the show’s setup is that Jeremy Piven is an American who goes to Britain and opens a fancy ass department store. There’s some extraordinarily interesting history of this period, if you dig obscure specific histories. And, really, who doesn’t? If you raised your hand, please cut it off so you can’t raise your hand for the wrong things anymore.
The rise of a clerk class, the plummeting of communications and transportation costs, led to these waves in the western world, in which all the old ways of selling things went out of business in really short order. Mail order companies drove out the individual general stores, and then in turn were mostly wiped out a generation later by the booming of department stores. The latter perfected using the cheap transport of railroad lines to ensure a single location where everything under the sun was sold, and cheaply.
Amazon driving all the brick and mortar stores out of business? We’ve seen this before, and we’ll see it again.
But Mr. Selfridge! It’s really not worth the watching unless you must have all things British. And even then, the protagonist is an American, so you’re already disappointed. Never has so much drama been condensed into so few actual events.
It’s strange just how much of British television is made up of period pieces set right around 1920 or 1950. Yes, we have a biased sample in what we actually get delivered to us across the pond, but even one or two such shows would be more than we’ve got in America.
One lens to look at it through is that of comparing it to the age of Westerns over in America. The hint: westerns were never really about cowboys and Indians, anymore than Moby Dick was about a whale. The popularity of the western was a window into the American psyche of a very long time period: of notions of us vs. them, of encroaching uncivilized outsiders, of a nostalgia for simplicities of morality without gray areas.
In the same way, these British shows are tapping into deeper themes in the same way, having little to do with an actual obsession for the life of people a hundred years ago: class and mobility, the collapse of an old world. I won’t even try to launch into a thousand words here on the nuances of these themes and others, most of which would probably be better argued by someone with at least one foot in Britain. But it’s a fun exercise, teasing out these patterns in entertainment, and going full AP English style of them, pulling out not only unifying themes, but thinking on why those themes are resonating so deeply in the current time.