The British import, which premiered in the U.S. on PBS Sunday night, transplants Downton's formula for success (British period drama with plenty of plot twists) from the English countryside in the early 1920's to a working class neighborhood in 1950's London.
Call the Midwife follows novice midwife Jenny Lee as she navigates her new assignment living and working among the nuns of Nonnatus House in Poplar, a depressed area of London where women spend their years in a constant cycle of pregnancy, birth and then another pregnancy. Nurse Lee vocalizes her biggest challenge in the first episode: "I didn't know people lived like this," she remarks of her patients. "But they do -- and it's why we're here," responds a fellow midwife, setting up the first season's six-episode arc.
From the start, the Downton comparisons are inevitable. Batty-but-well-meaning Sister Monica Joan is Call the Midwife's version of Grantham family cook Mrs. Patmore, getting in zingers like, "From the extreme height of your heels, I deduced that you are not a nun."
Stern Sister Evangelina brings to mind housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, while heroine Jenny Lee is reminiscent of Grantham youngest daughter Lady Sybil, a beautiful do-gooder who's slightly naive about the world around her. If the somewhat-slow first episode doesn't hold your attention, just wait until Miranda Hart shows up in episode 2 and instantly steals the show. HuffPost TV's Maureen Ryan compared Hart's Chummy Browne to Downton's Mr. Bates for her scene-stealing abilities, but I'll go one further and say she's the show's Dowager Countess, sneaking in deadpan quips and witty barbs at every turn. Hart is one of Britain's most successful comedians and now America can discover her brilliance.
While Downton Abbey's success was unexpected (the Daily Beast partially attributes it to the show feeding the American ideals of "the demise of a class and the end of an empire"), it managed to appeal to everyone from my grandmother, my mother and myself to my male coworkers. It remains to be seen whether a show about birthing babies in mid-century London has the same crossover appeal.
Part of Call the Midwife's charm is the way it touches on modern-day issues, from class warfare to the birth control battle ("As soon as one [baby] vacates its pram, another one takes its place," muses Sister Evangelina. "And thus it was and ever shall be until such time as they invent a magic potion to put a stop to it."). The first episode's main birth story follows Conchita, an immigrant pregnant with her 25th child, whose husband says she hasn't had a period for years because she keeps getting pregnant. Seeing this, even fictionalized, you have to wonder how much access to contraception changed these women's lives (the first oral contraceptives wouldn't be approved for use in Great Britain until 1961). The show also sneaks in praise of National Health Service (although not quite as blatantly as during the Olympics opening ceremony).
Though Call the Midwife's characters aren't quite as compelling as Downton Abbey's (there's certainly no scheming Thomas), they leave you just intrigued enough to tune in week after week. And it's already won the ratings war in the UK, pulling in more viewers than Downton's first season finale and becoming BBC One's most successful new drama series since 2001.
Are you a Downton Abbey fan? Will you tune in to Call the Midwife?
Watch the Call the Midwife series premiere:
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