When it comes to scripted drama, babies are the nuclear option.
If a show needs a sure-fire way of ramping up tension and making viewers pay attention, all it needs to do is put a baby in some kind of jeopardy, and the easiest way to manipulate viewers' emotions is to show a mother in childbirth experiencing complications. It's so easy for TV shows or movies to use stories like these for cheap, exploitative effects that it's hard not to be suspicious any time a pregnant lady or a stroller shows up on screen.
That's why the modest accomplishments of "Call the Midwife" (premieres Sunday, Sept. 30 on PBS Masterpiece; check local listings) are all the more laudable. Here's a show that, for long periods of time, respectfully and sensitively depicts the difficulties and joys of labor and delivery, and the lives of working-class mothers, some of whom don't have access to quality medical care. The ingredients of this six-episode season, which is based on the memoirs of a midwife who worked in London's East End in the late '50s, could have been used to create a mawkish melodrama, but, despite a tendency to err on the side of superficiality, "Call the Midwife" is generally sensitive and understanding when it comes to maternal matters.
If you can accept "Midwife" for what it is -- and at its core, it's a pleasant, even romantic period piece about divergent people who learn to take care of their own -- there are quite a few pleasures to be found here. Having said that, at times, "Call the Midwife's" lack of ambition is a little irritating: The lead character, new nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), is often a cipher, and the show doesn't give consistent depth to the lives of the women she and her fellow midwives interact with. There's a tendency to cut short interesting ideas and storylines in favor of rosy, Hallmark moments, and the supporting characters tend to be predictable types (dotty old lady, battleax, capable plain girl, blonde temptress, jocular handyman, etc.).
Still, despite the limitations of the scripts, the supporting cast easily steals the show, and if the first episode of "Midwife" strikes you as a bit slow (and there are pacing issues throughout), stick with the show in order to meet Chummy, the Mr. Bates of "Call the Midwife." I don't think you'll regret it.
Mr. Bates is, of course, the valet to the Earl of Grantham on "Downton Abbey," and during that show's first season, I came to care a great deal about this stoic, intelligent man. As his romance with a housemaid took on a life of its own, the inheritance issues regarding the Earl's estate faded into the background. Chummy, an awkward upper-class girl, commits similar scene-stealing larceny here.
Jenny Agutter provides "Call the Midwife" with a solid center as the head of the order of nuns with whom the midwives live and work, and several other razor-sharp character actors fill out other roles extremely well, but Miranda Hart, who plays Chummy, walks off with the show. By the time the sixth episode rolled around, the fate of her tentative romance with a working-class policeman made me alternately joyful and tearful, never mind all those babies or Nurse Lee. Chummy's nervousness, her inherent kindness, her fear of upsetting her upper-class mother and the dawning realization that someone could actually love her are all depicted with delightful skill, sweetness and humor. A second series of "Call the Midwife" has been ordered, and if Chummy's not part of it, I may stage a public protest.
Toward the end of the season, the show becomes less concerned with the pregnant mothers of the East End and spends more time on Jenny's broken heart and Chummy's blossoming romance, and the former is much less interesting than the latter. There's also a storyline involving an eccentric older nun with possible dementia that provides the great Judy Parfitt with some excellent material, and the show has sensitive things to say about the kind of alienation and loneliness that can arise even in tight-knit communities. There are some tragic story arcs, but several of them are handled with restraint, and there's a good deal of humor and lightness in "Call the Midwife" as well (watching Chummy learn how to ride a bike is a lot of fun).
All "Call the Midwife" stories are not created equal, but all babies bring with them a world of possibility and love, and, whatever its missteps, it's hard not to fall for a story that hangs so much on that belief. Like "Downton Abbey," "Call the Midwife," which was a hit in the UK, only gently prods the status quo, and it doesn't set out to send a message about fertility, class or poverty. If it has any agenda, it is to put the UK's National Health Service, which has endured much budget-cutting in recent years, in the best possible light (though that message, which strays into almost comical propaganda now and then, will likely be lost on much of the American public).
At the end of the day, "Call the Midwife" does, in its own gentle way, send the message that determined people -- many of them women -- who ignore their allegedly limited opportunities can help create and sustain a caring community. That's not a message you're likely to see a lot of other places this fall.
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