Mr. Selfridge, the glossy and gloriously addictive Masterpiece soap opera somewhat freely adapted from historical events, ended Season One (now available for free streaming for Amazon Prime subscribers) with Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) at a low point both personally and professionally. Window designer Henri LeClair (Gregory Fitoussi), whose displays had played an invaluable part in giving Selfridge’s department store a striking public image, had turned in his notice to accept a high-profile job in New York, a decision Harry perceived as a personal betrayal.
Far worse, his long-suffering wife, Rose (Frances O’Connor), decided to leave London and take their children back to America after she reluctantly agreed to accompany her husband to the opening of a new play that starred his most recent mistress, only to discover the piece was a savage satire attacking the private lives of her family.
Season Two, which premieres tonight on PBS with a two-hour episode, picks things up five years later, in the spring of 2014, as the Selfridge’s staff prepares to celebrate the store’s fifth anniversary. Rose, good as her word, has kept the kids stateside during the interval, but she returns to London to perform her wifely duties – specifically and pointedly limited to performing her Mrs. Selfridge role at public events. Beyond that, she makes clear, she is not remotely interesting in resuming a relationship with Harry after his years of compulsive infidelity.
Joining his parents in London is Selfridge scion Gordon (Greg Austin), now 15, who announces his intentions to quit school in favor of starting his training to run a store he eventually will inherit. Rose protests, but Harry approves. Unfortunately for Gordon, he soon discovers that being the boss’s son, especially at a time when rumors of war are stirring up labor unrest, can be a mixed blessing at best.
The gala anniversary prompts the return of others as well, including Harry’s protégée Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), back from an intensive two-year design program in Paris and ready to assume her new duties as head of display for the entire store. She immediately clashes, however, with Selfridge’s officious new head of fashion, Mr. Thackeray (Cal Macaninch), who promptly starts engineering a stealth campaign to ensure Agnes’ failure.
Elsewhere, Harry’s high-maintenance yet loyal friend and benefactor Lady Mae (Katherine Kelly) faces an unpleasant obstacle when her errant and usually absent husband, Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle), unexpectedly returns, bankrupt from gambling and seeking to replenish his fortune by fair means or foul – mostly the latter, which include blackmail and war profiteering.
On a far more pleasant note, those of us who watched sadly last season as Miss Mardle (the glorious Amanda Abbington, Sherlock) was jilted by her selfish lover, Mr. Grove (Tom Goodman-Hill), can revel in some major karmic blowback this season, as fate smiles brightly on the former and nearly crushes the latter.
Also joining the cast this season is the delightful Polly Walker (HBO’s Rome) as Rose’s new close friend Delphine Day, whose bohemian sensibilities – along with a spicy autobiography and sexy new nightclub – only sharpen Rose’s resolve to be her own woman, free of submission to Harry’s humiliations.
Piven, who is also a producer on the series, is somewhat ideally cast as the intense, brash title character, and he pulls off the character’s more vulnerable moments – which felt false too often in Season One – more successfully in the new episodes (to paraphrase a very old joke, apparently this actor finally has mastered the art of faking sincerity). The only jarring note is the new character of Lord Loxley, a one-dimensional pipsqueak of a villain portrayed by McArdle in a laughably over-the-top performance.
As in Season One, the lavish physical production, with what appears to be slavish attention to period details, is beyond reproach, fully on the same impressive level as Masterpiece’s uber-smash, Downton Abbey. Mr. Selfridge may not be high art, but it is gourmet popcorn of the highest level.