First things first. The show is called “Call the Midwife,” and the promotional images feature nuns on bicycles. This probably sounds great if you’re into the whole tea-and-twee thing, but I promise there’s a broader appeal to it if that’s not your thing. I’d venture to say if you like Downton Abbey, Grey’s Anatomy, or Orange Is The New Black, you should give Call The Midwife a try.
This show follows Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine – and narrated in the present day by Vanessa Redgrave), a young midwife working in East London in the late 1950s. Jenny lives at a nursing convent, so her colleagues are a mix of old nuns and young nurses. The East End was super-poor at the time, and super-fertile as well, apparently. So, what does this all have to do with Downton, Grey’s, and OITNB?
Let’s start with the obvious. These shows are both set in England in the past. The thing is, although the late 50s is usually considered a pretty modern era, the East End was still struggling to recuperate from World War II, and the area had a lot more in common with Downton in the teens and 20s than modern London.
Then, there’s the class thing. Jenny’s from somewhere in the comfortable classes, and she has good intentions to help out in the East End. Like plenty of well-intentioned 22-year-olds before her, though, she can’t help but feel a little judgmental towards some of the less-privileged folks she meets. You can see her journey from sympathy to empathy as the seasons progress. Then there’s Chummy, a nurse from the upper-upper class who seems to only make positive assumptions about everyone she meets. There’s also plenty of screen time given to the patients from the East End, and not all of them are exactly fawning over the upper-class nurses. The nuns, of course, are sort of in a class all to themselves. If you want to see how the upstairs-downstairs thing would play out 40 years down the line – say, when Ethel’s and Mary’s children are adults – you should probably watch this.
… or E.R… or Chicago Hope… In many ways, Call The Midwife is a historical medical drama. There’s none of the mystery of House, because – surprise! – all of the patients are pregnant. Nevertheless, Call The Midwife follows a different patient or two each episode. Of course, sometimes a more compelling patient will show up again later on.
I should mention that childbirth is really not my thing, but you don’t see any of the gory details. If you think medical problems and procedures are interesting, but can’t stomach too much blood and guts, this is a good bet.
Sometimes, Call The Midwife reads as a love letter to the NHS. It kind of feels like that kid in fourth grade who would brag about having an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and you’d be like “you don’t really have to brag about it, I was already jealous of you.” But don’t mind me, I just have a high-deductible plan and am bitter about it.
Orange Is The New Black
I’m sure there’s some sort of analogy there between nuns and prisoners, but that’s not exactly what I mean. I mean, there’s this great, diverse group of characters, and you get to learn about every one. Everyone – nuns, nurses, or disadvantaged patient – is presented on equal footing. You don’t get the full backstory of every character, but between the writers and the actors, everyone does such a wonderful job of presenting each character as a full, complex person.
If you want to watch Call the Midwife, act fast. Season One is on Netflix, but season 2 is only streaming on PBS through September 3. It watches fast, though, because there are only 15 episodes in all. Both seasons (series, they call them in the UK, because they’re just a bunch of cuties) are available on DVD, so hopefully season 2 will make it to Netflix soon.