For a long time, if you were an American Anglophile, PBS was a one-stop shop for British television. It’s a little odd that our public broadcasting service would be so tied to our colonial motherland, but there you have it. Lately, as UK television has been expanding nearly as much as its counterpart across the pond, it’s also become diversified across American networks. Netflix and Hulu have picked up a huge number of series — many of them grisly (though good) murder mysteries like Wallander, Happy Valley, and Luther — and lately, Lifetime has unexpectedly grabbed up several prestige miniseries like War & Peace and And Then There Were None.
But PBS alone remains the sole purveyor of what I’m going to call Comfort TV, of which both Grantchester (now in its second season) and Mr. Selfridge (in its fourth and final) staunchly belong. Joining it are also the recently departed Downton Abbey, and ready to return Call the Midwife, although I would argue (and have) that Call the Midwife is in fact one of the most gruesome series on TV. Still, its outcomes are usually happy.
So where, in this age of Peak TV, Prestige TV, Guilty-Pleasure TV (of which there should never be any guilt), does Comfort TV fit in? Somewhere, basically, it has to. As series grow increasingly violent, and occasionally mind-numbingly twisted, there needs to a space that viewers make to relax. Not just with a comedy, but with something a little deeper and more emotional, with lush settings and a sweeping scores.
Both Grantchester and Mr. Selfridge apply, and even if you aren’t caught up with either, their narratives aren’t ones that are too convoluted to sort through almost immediately (even with Selfridge’s large cast). For Grantchester, in a way, that’s a shame, because its first season felt like a unique take on the subgenre of English hamlet crime drama. The increasingly ubiquitous (Amen!) James Norton stars as Sidney Chambers, an Anglican vicar residing in the sleepy town of Grantchester (nearish to Cambridge) in the 1950s. Sidney is handsome, intelligent, passionate, and it turns out, a very good detective. The first season also saw him cultivating a close friendship with Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green), a man who becomes for Sidney something like family, as they solved local crimes.
Season 1 also saw Sidney wrestling with his mental scars from the war, his potential alcoholism, and his love for a wealthy socialite friend, Amanda (Morven Christie), who has an arranged marriage she cannot break from. There was also some exploration and application of faith, which really made Grantchester feel unique in the crime TV landscape, but that has been far more muted in the show’s new season. Further, Sidney’s personal connections to almost every crime (which allow him to be involved in the investigations) have begun to border on the ludicrous. And that’s where Season 2 of the show (which will also run an economical six episodes) has changed from a compelling crime drama to something simply comfortable to watch. It feels like a throwback to Agatha Christie’s Poirot or Miss Marple series, where there’s a sense of distance between the cerebral puzzle of the crime and the visceral corpse it’s attached to.
Ultimately, Sidney and Geordie still make for an increasingly good pair of detectives, even if it rarely makes sense for Sidney to be as involved as he is. And the series’ secondary characters, including the shy and witty (and closeted) Leonard Finch (Al Weaver) as Sidney’s associate vicar, and the bitter and tough (but fair) Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones) as the vicarage’s house marm of sorts, creates an unexpected family unit. There’s a short scene near the beginning of the new season’s first episode where the troupe, including Geordie’s family, come home from a day spent swimming, picnicking, and maybe ingesting a little too much sherry. They, arms around one another, sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” as they make their way back home. When they return, there’s news of a murder — as there always is — but somehow, the warm feeling of the sun on a breezy afternoon never fades.
There’s a similarly bright aesthetic to Mr. Selfridge, which launched four years ago as, essentially, Downton Abbey’s not quite as popular, merchant-class cousin. It has been led with bombastic enthusiasm by Jeremy Piven as the American Harry Selfridge, founder of what have become the iconic UK department stores. The show has always boasted a large (and rotating) cast of great acting talent, though the material doesn’t always match up. The costuming and settings aren’t as lush as Downton, but they are still an important part of the show’s overall sense of bygone 1920s London reverie. The show is also one that burns through its plots extraordinarily quickly, and the stakes never feel that high. That’s something it has in common with Grantchester; even when a character seems up against something significant, it’s gently sorted out often long before the end of the hour. Comfort, you see. Not tension and anxiety.
In its final season, Selfridge treats itself to a time jump of almost a decade, which allows it to more easily wrap up the storylines of its major characters, though they have aged unevenly, and not all of their stories make sense in the context of “eight years later” — another similarity with Downton Abbey. The crux of it is that Harry is in personal crisis, gambling and spending too much time with an annoying set of vaudevillian American sisters (Emma Hamilton and Zoe Richards), but his story has rarely been the emotional center of the show. Instead, it’s more exciting to see the return of Lady Mae (Katherine Kelly), the changing home life of Mr Grove (Tom Goodman-Hill) and the return of his long-time love Miss Mardle (Amanda Abbington). The Hawkins sisters (Amy Beth Hayes and Sacha Parkinson) face with big changes in their homes and careers as well, while Victor Colleano (Trystan Gavelle), Mr. Crabb (Ron Cook), Frank Edwards (Samuel West) and other series staples all make their appearances and are embroiled in their own dramas. It remains simple and often sweet.
Though the overall quality (and sense) of the show has diminished as it’s worn on, the final nine episodes seem on point to deliver both some final spectacles in the store, and a satisfying way to say goodbye to these characters who may not be etched on our hearts exactly, but have provided viewers with good fun for as long as we’ve known them. Even in the darker moments, the show never goes too dark, which is another hallmark of Comfort TV. It’s taken care of quickly and easily, and if there are hard feelings then you know they will, sooner likely rather than later, be mended.
And that, ultimately, is the value of Comfort TV. It is never boring, but it’s not going to keep you on the edge of your seat. It often will be set in the past, with a locale far from your own home. It’s warm, satisfying, and cozy, especially situated on a Sunday night where some of television’s most intense dramas reside. They’re easy to binge, or to set aside and come back to later, as if greeting old friends. That’s the pleasure of Grantchester and Mr. Selfridge, which may not end up on the year’s best lists against other more prestigious, outrageous, or emotionally harrowing series, but they deserve to be noticed and possibly even thanked for the rare calm they add to the increasingly noisy TV landscape.
Ratings: ★★★ Good
Grantchester Season 2 and Mr. Selfridge Season 4 both premiere Sunday, March 27th on PBS.