Call The Midwife debuts tonight on PBS at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 7 p.m. Central and Mountain on most stations, but you should check local listings.
Brandon Nowalk: Call The Midwife may dress like The Hour but it’s closer to The Help, a hearty plate of familiar comfort food. Except this particular plate is rather well made. Set in 1957, the story follows a group of midwives stationed at a convent in London’s poor East End. Our guide is newcomer Jenny Lee, who spends the first episode going through all the First Week On The Job tropes, including hazing, getting in over her head, and that happily, finally realizing that she’s fitting in. The stubbornly modern camera shoots the period decor like it’s one big London soundstage, but dissonance eventually gives way to nostalgia as the story envelops you. Every little shock is buffered by the muted colors and soft ambient lighting. Even the grime on the walls is decorative. The whole story is the recollection of an old Jenny Lee, Vanessa Redgrave in the Vanessa Redgrave role, and she recalls her youth with such a twinkle that her bookend narration is basically retrofitted Celine Dion lyrics. Exactly as it should be. Call The Midwife is a show to curl up with before the work week.
What distinguishes this particular series of heartwarming fluff is its disarming lack of pretension. Gone are the long, moody silences where the audience is meant to think about the gravity of all the nothing that is happening. No, Call The Midwife dives right in. The opening shot follows Jenny Lee through her rambunctious new neighborhood. She quickly meets the nuns and nurses at her new convent and takes a few patients. Redgrave wraps it all up in some talk about life and death and love, but it’s a harmless bow. She’s shallow, but she’s not wrong. Call The Midwife knows exactly what it is.
That shallowness threads throughout the narrative, not least in the characterization, but every now and then you catch a whiff of what might be a theme if it were more developed. For instance, Jenny has come to the East End specifically to help the less fortunate. Call The Midwife could not be less interested in seriously examining her privilege—more than once I thought of the Childrens Hospital line, “I can’t talk right now, mummy. I’m doing medicine on black girl from a council estate and my hands are dripping with her poor, black blood”—but it motions in that direction throughout the season. There’s a trace of Look How Far We've Come, but it’s different from Matthew Weiner’s early softballs. It crops up in a pointed reference to the then-recent centralization of health records, for one, relevant but still lit with neon. Fortunately, Call The Midwife quietly soars when it comes to its procedural aspects. It charts the bureaucratic roles and paths for health care professionals in the ‘50s with such grace that you don’t even notice. It’s all kind of beside the point of this delightful melodrama about women at extreme points in their lives, but it makes a decent foundation for the show nonetheless.
The biggest weight on Call The Midwife is its conventional handsomeness, all fit figure and no personality. The camera is always searching for a fashionable hand-me-down, slightly desaturated, of course, and the most vivid shots are soon gone. The result is that, for all its precise costuming, Call The Midwife doesn’t look like the 1950s. It looks like a reenactment. It took me some time to surrender, but then the show got me chuckling in an irresistible check-up scene between Jenny and a Spanish woman having her 25th child. By the time the eldest daughter says she can’t translate “stretch marks,” I was in. It may not have the best presentation, but cheesecake is cheesecake.
The period details compensate a bit—a Whistler-esque painting had me drooling—but the sets go above and beyond. At the end of the first episode, a woman discusses her syphilis diagnosis in a room festooned with red dots. The Spanish mother lives in this yellow bedroom with floral wallpaper bars, not the most optimistic connotations for her pregnancy. The convent has a great dining hall where two stained glass windows convey all the soft lighting a nun could want and two enormous patterns of light on the table. And a grand parish hall becomes a makeshift hospital with a bunch of folding curtains that, through some precise soundtrack work, actually do insulate one “room” from the next. (In yet another clever reference, the scene opens with “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” with its sly Hitchcockian poignancy intact.) Outdoors there’s a fog required for plot purposes that also helps sell the history. Every last location is working its hardest to support the story.
That's why the most striking stylistic feature of Call The Midwife is its use of tableau. It doesn’t often have time to go full-Nativity—though the nuns are constantly forming two lines—but scene after scene is about arranging characters in space, exploring their relationships physically and emotionally. Ultimately, Call The Midwife isn’t about deep ideas or painstaking verisimilitude. It’s about characters.
Alasdair Wilkins: In its first series of six episodes, all of which I have seen, the great strength of Call The Midwife is its setting. The show’s vision of 1950s, working-class London is a time of subtle transition, teetering on the edge of something almost modern while still featuring all the horrible deprivations of the distant past. The expectant mothers of the East End live in filth and squalor, crammed into dingy, decaying buildings surrounded by more children than they know what to do with. But they’re not abandoned like the mothers of, say, a generation before. The midwives possess all the latest medical knowledge, some of which could have saved babies born just 10 years earlier, and the show is quick to point out the presence of a social safety net there to save these downtrodden women—the role of the recently created National Health Service is brought up more than once as being instrumental to their care. This is set before the real social upheaval of the 1960s, but more tolerant, progressive cracks are beginning to show in this class-dominated, tradition-bound world. Call The Midwife doesn’t shy away from how horrible this world could be, particularly for those who don’t have a natural place in it. But there’s a gentle optimism that pervades the proceedings, and it’s a considerable part of the show’s charm.
The characters are all thinly drawn, defined by one or two key characteristics—Sister Evangelina is no-nonsense to the point of rudeness, Sister Julienne is the wise, pragmatic leader, Trixie is the mildly rebellious “modern” woman, Cynthia is timid, Sister Monica Joan is eccentric going on senile, and so forth. The characters rarely stray from these straightforward characterizations, although Call The Midwife does get good mileage out of throwing these wildly disparate types together and seeing them clash and cooperate in equal measure. The show’s best character, Miranda Hart’s dreadfully upper-class Chummy Browne, doesn’t show up until the second episode, and her character livens things up considerably. Even leaving her aside, the supporting characters are still significantly clearer than Jenny Lee herself, who takes quite a while to snap into focus. In the early going, she’s more quietly goodhearted observer than active participant in the proceedings. Jessica Raine is good in the role, but it’s not until later on in the season that she gets to do much more than react to the latest instance of East London misery.
None of that is to say that Call The Midwife fails as drama—it just isn’t especially subtle or complex. This is a show built around birth and, to a surprising extent, death as well. Such primal material is pretty much guaranteed to be emotionally affecting so long as the production is even halfway competent, and Call The Midwife isn’t above the occasional manipulative tug on the heartstrings. The show is fundamentally a crowd-pleaser, largely intent to find the happy endings—or, perhaps more accurately, the happy beginnings—and moments of triumph for its main characters and their patients. Some of these resolutions may seem to strain credulity for the time period, but this goes back to the show’s essential optimism. Somewhat going against the current trend in period drama, Call The Midwife is inclined to look at the brighter side of history, and the more tragic incidents tend to happen to characters on the periphery. This perhaps limits the show’s dramatic scope, but those who can live with a little emotional manipulation will find the show has plenty to offer.
The show’s only real failing is the voiceover. Vanessa Redgrave is on hand to provide distinguished narration as the elder Jenny Lee looking back on her youth. While the narration occasionally is useful in filling in a key plot point or tying up a loose end, most of the narration consists of a lot of faux-poetic musings on the power of love. It’s gratuitous at best, cringe-inducing at worst. There are a few moments in the show itself that go slightly overboard with the power of love, but these are mostly just tainted by association with the narration. Indeed, more often than not the narration feels like a complete non sequitur, entirely disconnected from the largely love-free plotlines. There are some romantic entanglements that become more important as the season progresses, but even then the monologues don’t add any particular insight. Still, this bloviating isn’t enough to seriously detract from Call The Midwife’s considerable charms as gentle romantic drama and as a window into a setting that’s thankfully long ago and far away.