Judge Gordon Sullivan marvels at the days before answering machines.
Lately, television drama has been splitting into two different tracks. On the one hand, we have shows that are trying to be ultra-contemporary. Think The Wire or Breaking Bad, which would have been impossible twelve years ago. On the other hand, we have a series of shows that look backward, trying to mine the history of the twentieth century of new stories. On the face of it, they seem like very different enterprises, but shows like Mad Men and The Hour actually show just how little has really changed in the last half-dozen decades. People are still having sex, trying to get ahead, and breaking people's hearts. Now, with Call the Midwife, we can add that people are still having babies and living in squalor to that list. Not that Call the Midwife is as down as all that. Nope, with Call the Midwife: Season Two, the show continues to offer a pregnancy-of-the-week formula, along with some surprising twists and turns for the ladies of Nonnatus House.
Facts of the Case
This second series actually begins with the Christmas special, and many of the threads from the previous season are picked up again. Chummy (Miranda Hart, The Infidel) is still married to PC Noakes (Ben Caplan, Leap Year), Sister Monica Joan (Judith Parfitt, Wilde) is still a bit batty, and our heroine Nurse Lee (Jessica Raine, The Woman in Black) is still coming to grips with her first year at Nonnatus House. The eight episodes in this season follow the women through romantic trials, medical emergencies, and a host of pregnancies.
Call the Midwife is basically a weekly medical procedural show, though several things set it apart from typical doctorly fare. The first is the historical setting. Call the Midwife takes a pretty hard look at London's East End in the 1950s. Despite the fact that medicine has been practiced in all kinds of crazy ways for the last couple of hundred years (at least), very few shows choose to set their medical world in the past. This gives us a different view of the 1950s, only a few years after rationing ended and before all of London was restored from World War II-era bombing. It also introduces interesting new problems into the typical procedural formula. Instead of relying on the latest and greatest medical technology to save the day, the women of Call the Midwife often have to leave things up to chance or encounter medical issues that we don't see much in the modern world. This keeps the show from getting boring.
The other big thing that sets the show apart is the focus on midwives instead of doctors. I've seen token midwives as characters before, but I don't recall a show dedicated entirely to them. That might have been enough to set Call the Midwife apart, but the show adds the extra layer of stationing the midwives in a religious setting. The tension between the secular midwives and the nuns makes for some interesting tension, and more importantly gives the creators opportunities to show even more perspectives on the era and the profession.
However, exactly like other successful procedural shows, the week-to-week stories take a welcome back seat to the developments in the lives of the characters. In that respect, Call the Midwife has a solid collection of characters to develop. There's our naïve young heroine, who's smart and capable but inexperienced in the ways of the world. The house's head nun, played ably by Jenny Agutter, is an experienced woman of faith. Even the newest trainee Chummy has to struggle against her ungainliness and upper-crust background to make it in the East End. There are several new developments (which I won't give away) that keep the characters on their toes and set the show up for an excellent third series.
The DVD presentation for these episodes is fine. The nine included here are spread across three discs, which gives these 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers plenty of room. There's a tinted, slightly hazy look to the show that's well represented here. Clarity and sharpness are fine for the treated image, and black levels are nice and deep. Compression artifacts are a significant problem either. The show's stereo tracks do a similarly good job. Dialogue is always crisp and clear, and the ambient sounds of the East End come through perfectly. English subtitles are included as well.
The set's lone extra is a featurette focused on the adaptation of Jennifer Worth's books into the series, and it features interviews with the cast and crew.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm not sure why Call the Midwife is the highest-rated drama in BBC history. It's a fine enough show, and I enjoyed watching it, but I'm afraid that too much hype will ruin the slightly delicate drama of the show. The show itself can be a bit rosy about some aspects of the past, and not everyone will be interested in the lives of these random East Enders. The show is also not for the squeamish. Though it's not a gorehound's delight, Call the Midwife definitely doesn't shy away from birthing moments. We see babies emerge (tastefully, but with a bit of blood and fluids), and there's lots of screaming in pain. Non-birthing situations often result in sores or other nasty moments that might turn off less iron-stomached viewers. Others might object to the show's pragmatic approach to the world: these nurses and nuns are all about saving lives, and anything saves lives is a good thing. Thus, the National Health Service is good because it helps save lives. Abortion (in the case of a mother who already has eight babies she can't afford) can be for the greater good, etc. All this will make some see the show as propaganda rather than drama.
Call the Midwife is a solid historical show that boasts some good character development and an interesting setting. Things get a little more "real" this time out, with more difficult cases and momentous decisions on the part of the characters. These nine episodes are well-presented and filled with decent drama. Definitely recommended to fans of Brit TV.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
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