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'Call The Midwife' Is The Delightful UK Cult Hit You Need To See

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CALL THE MIDWIFE
Helen George as Trixie, Miranda Hart as Chummy, Jessica Raine as Jenny, Bryony Hannah as Cynthia on 'Call the Midwife.' | PBS

If there's one truth we can all agree on, it's that there are too many TV shows featuring do-gooder nuns, earnest midwives and adorable babies.

I'm kidding, of course. One of several notable things about the charming British series "Call the Midwife," which returns Sunday on PBS, is its focus on themes and subjects the rest of TV is often content to ignore.

"Call the Midwife" is unapologetically sincere and sentimental, yet it's also honest and clear-eyed about the dangers involved in bringing new life into the world. That mix of qualities make it unique, as does its focus on young women making life choices that were unusual for that time and place.

Miranda Hart and Jessica Raine are among the actresses playing young midwives who work with poor women in London's East End in the 1950s. Women in that community rarely went to the hospital to have babies, according to former midwife Jennifer Worth, upon whose memoirs "Call the Midwife" is based. On the show, the first two seasons of which can be streamed on Netflix, the nuns and midwives of Nonnatus House travel around the neighborhood on their trusty bicycles and do everything they can to help pregnant women and new mothers. The midwives run prenatal clinics, deal with difficult births, soothe scared or cranky mothers, and generally try their best to help when a mother's personal life become unmanageable.

That's the show's serious side, but that's not all there is too it: More often than not, "Call the Midwife" is light on its feet. It's not often that you describe a show as "sweet" in a good way, but "Call the Midwife" has a compassionate aura that helps me look past its occasionally clunky storytelling.

One of the drama's great strengths is its earnest depiction of two different communities: The East End of London, which is rough but full of people who want to do right by their families, and the educated women of Nonnatus House, who come from very different backgrounds but do their best to try to understand each other and work together to serve the local population.

All the women at Nonnatus House are outliers of one kind or another, given their life choices in the class-bound Britain of the 1950s. But there's a clear favorite: Miranda Hart's character, the delightfully-named Chummy, who didn't fit in at all when she arrived in Season 1.

Chummy's real name is Camilla Cholomondely-Browne, and she comes from a wealthy, aristocratic family. Her mother is horrified by her daughter's decision to become a midwife, and Chummy's innate shyness is compounded by a lack of confidence that her family's disapproval only increases.

"She carries her background and her lack of love from her mom," said Hart in an interview for HuffPost TV. "She had such an upperclass upbringing -- she probably went to boarding school at seven. She carries that vulnerability and insecurity around with her."

Hart herself comes from a family with upper-class connection, but she noted that she was not raised with a silver spoon in her mouth. Until her self-titled comedy series debuted in the U.K. a few years ago, she was a typical struggling actor/comedian with a low-paying day job. And that's not the only way in which she's unlike Chummy.

"I had more of a loving family unit," Hart said. She also went to boarding school, but Hart's family was supportive of her choices, if occasionally a bit mystified by them.

"Chummy's mum was just awful to her -- she wanted her to be something else. That's why the audience loves Chummy -- they want her to win," Hart said.

Yet Chummy always gamely soldiers on in the best stiff upper lip tradition, and she ends up thriving as a midwife. She even marries a local policemen and last season, they had a baby.

"There's a bit of shoving the baby to him, just so she gets a respite," Hart said of Season 3. But Chummy enjoys domestic life, Hart added -- she wants a break "mainly so she can run up some more scatter cushions."

In Season 3, part of the challenge for Chummy will be balancing work and home life, which is all part of the show's efforts to weave the midwives' personal lives into the tales of local residents' births and deaths. It's a formula that has served the show well, for the most part; "Call the Midwife" has a cult following in the U.S. and is a massive hit in the U.K.

"For all of us, it was a bit shocking," Hart said. "You do your best and you hope it works out. We knew it wasn't going to be rubbish. Sometimes you do a show and you go, 'Hm, this could be rubbish.' We knew with 'Call the Midwife' it was going to be good, but you don't know if audiences are going to take to it. The way they did was just amazing."

For Hart, who's also written a jaunty memoir of sorts called "Is it Just Me?," her gig on "Call the Midwife" is a nice change of pace from comedy, which she calls her "first love."

"It was actually really nice for me for me to have a break from doing the sitcom, because I write and perform it, so it's a lot of pressure, a lot of stress," Hart said. "It's called 'Miranda' -- if you don't like the show, you're going to hate me. And if the show doesn't work then my career's gone. So it was a high pressured job, which I love, and I'm thrilled with how it's gone. But it's hard and the pressure of getting a laugh is hard. For me to have a break from that, to do something different and more dramatic -- more real and less heightened -- is amazing."

To come right down to it, "Call the Midwife" is a soap opera. It might be a bit obvious sometimes, but its warm, open tone, its friendly, empathic treatment of its characters and its life-and-death subject matter all come together to make for something unique. A lot of shows deal with alienation and despair, but "Call the Midwife" touches on those ideas on its way to making gentle statements about the need for community and the complex bonds that can spring up amongst very different people.

Asked how she'd explain the show's success, Hart pondered for a moment. "I think it's the simplicity of life, community spirit, the love that runs though it -- a real warmth," she said. "And the '50s -- clothing and fashion-wise, that's now back a bit. Also the music -- it's just a great era. And it's a celebratory time in England. It was post-war -- people felt like they'd never had it so good."

The first two seasons of "Call the Midwife" are available on Netflix, and Season 3 debuts Sunday on PBS.

Ryan McGee and I discussed "Call the Midwife," as well as "Cosmos," "Surviving Jack" and "The Good Wife" on the most recent Talking TV podcast, which can be found here, on iTunes and below.

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