The U.S. series debut of PBS’ Call the Midwife fulfilled all my expectations of a BBC hit that trumped Downton Abbey’s first season ratings in Britain. The period drama, which premiered in the U.K. in January, elicited both laughs and (near) tears in its depiction of midwives and nuns working in the 1950s slums of London’s East End.
The show follows newly qualified midwife Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) as she struggles to “find her feet” in the Nonnatus House nursing convent and accept the seemingly unsanitary living conditions of the women she cares for. Although the British import initially solicits a comparison to Downton, the show is more of a cross between Grey’s Anatomy (the earlier seasons), Upstairs, Downstairs (the “downstairs” portion), and The Real Housewives of New Jersey (see the opening catfight scene). Fine, maybe Real Housewives is a stretch.
Vanessa Redgrave narrates the show as the voice of the older Jennifer Worth, the author who penned the trilogy of memoirs that the show is based. “Midwifery is the very stuff of life. Every child is conceived in love or lust and born in pain, followed by joy or by tragedy and anguish. Every birth is attended by a midwife. She is in the thick of it. She sees it all,” she says. [SPOILERS AHEAD]
In the premiere, Jenny witnesses love, anguish, then joy first-hand when a woman in her 23rd pregnancy (yup, you read that right) nurses her premature baby to health without any medical assistance. The audience is initially led to believe that the mother, Conchita, who was brought to England by her husband Len after the Spanish Civil War, is nothing more than a housekeeper and baby maker. She only speaks Spanish and her husband can’t communicate with her. But Len’s loving nature takes center stage when Conchita goes into early labor after a bad fall. He puts on a brave face for his wife when he thinks his baby is stillborn (the most gasp-worthy moment of the episode) and supports her decision to keep the baby at home instead of rushing him to a children’s hospital.
In between talks about “shocking discharge,” genital warts, urine, and blood, there are also comic moments. One of my favorite characters so far is Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt), who plays the eldest nun. She has an odd obsession with cosmology and is considered out of her wits by the convent. She force-feeds Jenny four slices of coconut cake as soon as she arrives to Nonnatus House and gives her a de-potted plant to care for a few days later. The show promises more laughs with next week’s introduction of a new character, Chummy Browne (Miranda Hart), who’s given biking lessons by the ladies since that is their primary mode of transportation.
Aside from squelching my wishes of having lived in 1950s London, the show delivers the right amount of laughs and squirms for a medical drama. It’s also shockingly gore-free. I’m eager to watch the rest of the series as Jenny learns about “life itself” (which includes meeting a man). We’ll see if Midwife can top Downton’s ratings in the U.S. as well.