Watching Mr. Selfridge (PBS, Sunday, 9 p.m.) is an odd, double-edged experience. The well-appointed Masterpiece series offers a vision of the optimistic birth of the modern department store at a time when our own great department stores are dead or dying.
A fictionalized account of American entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge (played by Entourage alum Jeremy Piven), the show isn't exactly must-see TV. But it works as lavish Edwardian décor porn. (One British TV writer called it "Downton Abbey with tills.")
Selfridge opened his namesake emporium in London in 1909, and his ensuing success came from a passionate belief that shopping could be a thrill instead of a chore. He designed his 540,000 square-foot store as a pleasure palace, using aristocratic trappings -- Ionic columns, crystal chandeliers, marble floors and plush carpets -- to lure the burgeoning middle classes.
Looking at Selfridge's retail cathedral, it's hard not to follow a slightly melancholy track to our city's own department stores. They had similarly bright beginnings, followed by a robust middle age. But we all know what's happened since.
Eaton's opened in 1905, a marvel of muscular Chicago-style architecture. (Selfridge himself got his start in the Windy City, working his way up at Marshall Field's.)
The downtown Hudson's Bay store followed in 1926, and -- unlike the late, lamented, demolished Eaton's -- it still hangs on. Its beautiful Beaux-arts facade is as imperturbable as ever, even as its interior gets weirder and shabbier. Speculation and debate about the building's future continue, but it seems clear that the 20th-century ideal of the big department store is no longer viable.
For Harry Selfridge, the department store was a symbol of a bright, shining, egalitarian future, the necessary antithesis to the dark, cramped, snooty stores of the 19th century.
The television series dives into Selfridge's big-idea boosterism, there at the enthusiastic start of things, but it's hard not to look ahead and see the long shadow of today's sad, stressed department-store chains.
Selfridge adored grandness and reach, and he demanded that his store's floors be as open and expansive as London's fire regulations would allow. At The Bay, it's those vast spaces that now give the downtown store such an eerie atmosphere. Even with the store compressed into three floors, the place can feel echoing and empty.
This effect was even worse when the Paddlewheel restaurant was stranded all by itself on the spooky sixth floor. Something about the low light and long deserted halls seemed to call up Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. (Just as well, perhaps, that the elevators aren't used much anymore. It's hard to get away from that image of elevator doors and a river of blood.)
The TV series presents Selfridge's as a busy, purposeful, self-contained world. According to the bio on which the show is based, Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead, Selfridge liked to walk through his army of employees -- at the store's peak they numbered in the thousands -- and rally the troops. The floors were packed with goods (Selfridge once boasted that he would sell anything, from a cigar to an airplane) and services (art shows, cooking exhibitions, child care, restaurants, salons, a library, reading and writing areas). Selfridge's even offered a "Silence Room" for frazzled shoppers.
Contrast this hive of activity with a few doleful memories of Eaton's in the late 1990s, when the hopeless, mismanaged corporation was floundering, the shelves were erratically dotted with dwindling stock, and whole floors were staffed by a few dispirited employees working under sentence of termination notices.
Back in the early 1900s, Selfridge was a visionary. He helped pioneer ideas we now take for granted: branding, celebrity endorsements, in-store promotions, elaborate window displays, aspirational advertising. He developed the concept of shopping as recreation, shopping as spectacle, shopping as a visual, tactile, emotional, even erotic experience. Basically, Selfridge and his flagship store helped kick-start modern consumerism.
But since consumerism runs on desire that can never be satisfied, the success of the modern department store contained its own end. Department stores stoked consumerist hunger, and then, decades later, these staid, solid institutions could no longer satisfy it. People still wanted everything in one place, but they headed to other sources, first the sprawling suburban malls and later the quick clicks of the Internet.
Maybe that's why watching Mr. Selfridge feels complicated -- glittery and glamorous and also a little sad. The show is about the start of Selfridge's, but it's also about the end of Eaton's. And ultimately it's about consumerism, which means that whatever it offers is never enough.