BBC Video // 2012 // 360 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 24th, 2012
They delivered hope for all.
While the notion of government-mandated healthcare remains an incredibly contentious issue in the United States to this day, Great Britain has enjoyed the benefits of the National Health Service for decades. As such, the new BBC series Call the Midwife is likely to play much differently for many viewers here in the United States than it did for those across the pond. At times, the series almost feels like a dramatized infomercial for the values of the NHS, as we witness the countless ways in which publicly funded healthcare improved life for those in need and changed the nature of the medical business in Britain. Despite the fact that more conservative American viewers may bristle at the frequent praise tossed in the direction of universal healthcare, Call the Midwife isn't really a confrontational or politically-charged series. In fact, it's mostly a sweet-natured, cheerful medical procedural about the considerably agony and ecstasy of childbirth.
Our central figure is a young woman named Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine, Robin Hood), who is embarking upon her new career in the field of midwifery. Jenny believes she's been assigned to a small hospital, but it turns out that her new base of operations is actually a convent. Most of the other midwives happen to be nuns, which would seem to make relatively modern and progressive Jenny a somewhat uncomfortable fit. However, the ladies soon find themselves working together quite smoothly. As the kinks of the healthcare system are being worked out and people are beginning to grow accustomed to the changes, Jenny and the other midwives find themselves facing a host of challenging deliveries.
The show more or less falls into a case-of-the-week format, but does a fine job of developing longer story arcs along the way. There are countless medical procedurals on television, but period medical dramas are a bit more uncommon, which allows Call the Midwife to feel reasonably fresh. Situations that could be handled with ease in the modern era prove a good deal more challenging in the early 1950s. While there is a slight sense of repetition at times (as there's bound to be in a show that spends a reasonably large portion of each episode watching characters shout, "Push! Push! Now take a deep breath...push!"), it's a relatively quick, well-acted, historically involving six hours. The DVD packaging promotes the fact that the show managed to achieve higher ratings than Downton Abbey in Great Britain. While it's not quite as immediately addictive as that gloriously soapy program, it's easy to see why the series managed to grab a large audience: this is a well-crafted piece of television that strikes an appealing balance between mentally nourishing drama and formulaic comfort food.
Raine does a fine job with her everywoman role, essentially serving as an audience surrogate for the many chaotic events. The assorted nuns are generally a pleasure, with Jenny Agutter (Logan's Run) standing out as a warm authority figure. However, the crown jewel of the cast is Miranda Hart (Miranda) as Chummy Brown, the towering, socially clumsy new midwife who proves to be one of the most valuable staff members. Hart is gloriously funny and tender in the role; it's a rich part that enlivens the series considerably.
The DVD transfer is solid enough, with all six episodes spread across two discs. Detail is strong throughout, permitting one to appreciate the impressive period design (the portrait of the impoverished lower class is particularly persuasive). There are times when colors don't seem to have quite enough pop, but that's my only noteworthy complaint. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is decent as well, though this is a relatively subdued show in the audio department. Dialogue is clear, music is well-mixed and sound design makes an impression when it needs to. Supplements are limited to two featurettes: "Wimples, Babies and Bicycles" and "Cast Members Discuss Giving Birth to Call the Midwife."
While shows like Mad Men and The Hour have provided compelling portraits of the wealthy working class in the 1950s, Call the Midwife: Season One serves as a valuable reminder that the era wasn't all snappy clothes, cool cars and cocktails. Its examination of life among the impoverished isn't quite the focal point of the show, but it leaves an impression that allows it to stand out in one's memory. Here's hoping season two proves equally satisfying.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 360 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated