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A Welcome Return to the East End with 'Call the Midwife'
March 30, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 1 comment
 

If you're a TV viewer looking for gun fights, car chases or serial killers, Call the Midwife is probably not your show. But a dearth of explosive action doesn't mean the historical period drama isn't without its hard-hitting moments. In fact, CTM makes its hay out of the darker corners of the urban underclass. And it's that spotlight, combined with the fearlessness and dedication of the young nurses it follows, that makes it one of the more poignant — and satisfying — shows on television today.

The series about young midwives in the late 1950s was a surprise Sunday night hit on BBC in the UK last season, averaging over 9 million viewers each week. It had similar ratings success in the US for PBS, and is now back for its second season, which begins Sunday, March 31 at 8 p.m. ET.

The first season of Call the Midwife was unerring, and maybe even perfect. Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the six episodes (in all respects, a miniseries) followed the young nurses as they bicycled their through the alleyways of post-war London's impoverished East End. With the laundry lines criss-crossing overhead, there was the palpable sense of life crammed into too-small flats, but also of the simple joys to be found there, despite the economic hardships.

Plot lines fearlessly tackled mental health problems, the advent of modern contraception and in one case, incest. They all unspooled in an unblinking but gentle manner.

The clean laundry is still flying in the second season of Call the Midwife, but the series isn't without its sophomore troubles. As deep as the show attempts to go into the human tapestry, and as hard as they seek to strike, the first three episodes are somewhat formulaic and reminiscent of last year's pace. Head writer Heidi Thomas (Upstairs, Downstairs) strides openly into spousal abuse and other uncomfortable story-matter, but the subjects are sometimes rolled out in tidy waves that expectantly deliver the "Terrible Secret of the Week."

But that all changes in the fourth episode, when the series hits its full stride, and the emotional authenticity it achieved last year, with a show that revolves around a birth defect. The episode hits such emotional depth you would have to be made of stone, or the most jaded TV viewer ever, to not be moved.

The young nurses, still deceptively innocent in their red sweaters and baby-doll collared uniforms, nevertheless remain stalwart and heroic during some daunting home births that threaten to go very wrong. (Upped to eight episodes for 2013, the series continues to tread into some very detailed birthing scenes.) Nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine, second from right at top) is still the main voice and lead character of the series, but this year's shows find expanded plot lines for nurses Franklin, Miller and Browne (Helen George, Bryony Hannah and Miranda Hart, above left to right, with Raine.)

The girls are still led by the resident nuns of the convent where they work, called Nonnatus House. The sisters are getting older, and, in Sister Evangelina's case (Pam Ferris, right), craggier, as she continues to bark impatiently at the girls. The nuns are grizzled veterans who have spent years working within the underclass of London's fabled East End dock district, and Call the Midwife — accurately, or not — portrays them as the most liberal and practical-minded of social workers, in spite of the conservative Anglican Church that they serve.

If the second season suffers by relying too heavily on the ingredients of season one, there are, however, clear benefits from that choice. Thomas and the writers have reprised the storyline structure from last year, where subplots revolve around common themes: love, in the premiere, followed by trust, fear and courage following in the subsequent three episodes.

That might be a little too neat and simplistic, but it's done with such sincerity (and ingenuity) that it doesn't distract. And the series still remains a lovingly photographed time piece, reveling in the optimistic wardrobes and colors of its mid-century period.

As the second season premiere — the story of a young, pregnant daughter of a foreign sea captain stuck aboard his merchant ship — concludes, Jenny's epilogue closes, as it does each episode. (It's her wobbling, elder voice, recalling the Worth memoirs, voiced by Vanessa Redgrave.) She says, "Love cannot ease every anguish in the world, but tenderly applied, it can transfigure fortunes, light up faces – turn the tide."

Call the Midwife certainly does its share to turn the usual tide of what we've come to expect from much of today's scripted television — not a race to the bottom, but a well considered, smart journey through life's toughest dramas. And it goes through them bravely, without a fiery explosion, or a hail of bullets, to be found.

 
 
 
 
 
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1 Comments
 
 
Angela
I missed season 1, except for one episode that I enjoyed. I'm happy to hear that it will be just as good this year, and might be even better for my having not seen the rest of season 1 because of the similar story-lines. And this is a pleasant surprise after my just finishing reading the review of Hannibal. Phew, there is hope!
Apr 4, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
 
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