Up until I moved out of my mother’s house to go to college, I had a strict 30 minutes of television per week rule. There were a couple exceptions—I could watch anything and everything on PBS (I watched A LOT of Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and Yan Can Cook as a kid) and as much of the news as my heart desired. The upshot to this was that I was a well-informed child (my mom likes to tell people about the time when, at age 5, I asked her what a prophylactic is) who took a great interest in cooking, and learned to carefully and artfully arranged the many egg-based creations I concocted in the kitchen. And, because I’m a child of the 90s, I chose my weekly junk TV from ABC’s now defunct TGIF lineup—a heartwarming assortment of family sitcoms delivered live in front of a studio audience. Every episode was filled with sanitized hijinx, and ended with a moment where any and all conflict was resolved with a huge bear hug. My world of television was safe and tame, warm, and happy.
My arrival at college and freedom to watch whatever I wanted coincided with the resurgence of reality television—I remember eating pizza in my dorm room and watching Joe Millionaire with a friend (if you are not familiar with this show, it’s like The Bachelor except the women are tricked into believing the bachelor is a millionaire, and then they find out he isn’t, but not until the end), watching knock down drag out fights on The Real World: Chicago, and, around my senior year in college, my university ponied up for HBO in our dorm rooms, which opened up a whole new world of television. I became obsessed with Rome, a sex and violence drenched drama about the Roman Empire.
In the years since college, my television watching habits have only gotten more and more voracious. I pay Comcast more than I care to admit, my DVR gets more of workout each day than I do, and I spend a good chunk of my weekend mornings catching up on the shows that I couldn’t manage to watch during the week. Last fall, during a bout of unemployment, and in desperate need of inspiration, I started looking through my DVR in search of something positive. I came up short—though my DVR is filled to the brim most days of the week, almost every show is a beautifully shot, beautifully acted tour through a cast of wildly unlikeable characters. There are very few modern, adult equivalentsof the TGIF lineup, most shows now leave you crying because “OMG WHAT DID I JUST WATCH?!” Which is great—not every show needs to be fluffy and wonderful and uplifting. But it felt like sometimes, it might be nice for just one show to fit that bill. And that’s when I discovered Call the Midwife.
Set in post-World War II 1950s London, Call the Midwife is a BBC-produced gem that airs Sunday nights on PBS. It centers around a group of nurses and nuns who deliver babies in London’s East End—the area of the city hardest hit during World War II. The premise is simple—each episode focuses on a birth or two. Some births are straightforward (well, as straightforward as any act that involves bringing a new life into the world can be) and some are more complicated, occasionally involving teen pregnancy, interracial affairs, and health problems. And though the subject matter itself may lead you to believe the show is all puffery, pink cheeked babies, and pious nuns, it is much more than that. The nuns and midwives are wonderfully fleshed out into actual, relatable human beings. These are people who have their own sets of issues—pride, vanity, stubbornness. But you always root for them and always want what’s best for them.
It’s rare to find a show that is both well-written and heartwarming, but Call the Midwife combines all the elements of other popular shows—stylized period dramas with a high attention to detail, multi-faceted characters, wonderful costuming, excellent acting. Rarer still is the idea that I don’t have to put aside my ideas of right and wrong (like *ahem* on my favorite show Scandal where I root for a murderous President to continue a kind of emotionally abusive relationship with a woman outside of his marriage) to root for these characters. And the show is unabashedly sentimental, giving great care and detail to the amazing, miraculous, and Herculean act of childbirth. I have joked to friends and family that the show makes me want to staple my legs together, but really, watching women give birth, at home, in a time without ultrasounds or epidurals, gives me a greater respect for the act of childbirth than I ever had before.
It is by no means a show for everyone—it is slow, there are no special effects, no one will ever be beheaded, and there are no supernatural creatures. But it is a beautiful show, one that celebrates the very act of bringing life into this world, and the journeys we take once we’ve arrived.
You can find seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix, and the new episodes air every Sunday at 8/7 Central on your local PBS affiliate.