Why Call The Midwife Is The Best Show You're Not Watching

Photo: PBS
What if I told you that the best show on television right now has nothing to do with Targaryens, Litchfield, or little liars, no matter how pretty?

There are no zombies in Call the Midwife, no dragons. No one gets beheaded or fed to the hounds. Nobody gets pushed in front of a moving train in an effort to camouflage political corruption. There are British accents, yes, but they're a far cry from Lady Mary Crawley's.

What Call the Midwife does have is childbirth — a lot of it. And somehow, it is just as riveting as the Red Wedding.

A brief synopsis: Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the show tells the story of a group of nurses in Poplar, a part of London's working class East End, in the late 1950s. The first three seasons center on nurse Jenny Lee, who works and lives at Nonnatus House, a convent that's home to an Anglican order of nuns who devote their lives to nursing and midwifery. As of season 4, the show is taking a more ensemble-centric approach, à la Orange Is the New Black, focusing on the inner lives of each character, which often mirror the medical cases they are presented with.

Okay, you may be thinking, You want me to sit through five seasons of a group of ingenue nurses battling poverty and squalor with the help of their feisty nun sidekicks? Well...yes. Yes, I do. And I'll explain why.

At its core, the show is a medical procedural, much like House (sans the grouchy addiction) or Grey's Anatomy (minus the on-call-room sexy time). Every episode presents a new set of patients (mothers and babies) who must be cared for, nursed, and most often, delivered. (Combine that with a healthy cup of strong English tea, and you've got the idea.) But beyond the step-by-step nature of each case are the deep dives into issues that, more often than not, are deemed too uncomfortable or sensitive for TV.

The show compellingly tackles such tough subjects as extreme poverty, old age, disease, homosexuality, postpartum depression, alcoholism, faith, death, sexual assault, friendship, and as the narrator (voiced by Vanessa Redgrave as an older Jenny recounting her past adventures) reminds us (a lot), love.

Some of the plots really tug at your heartstrings. There's the teenage girl who, scared to tell her parents that she's had premarital sex, sneaks out of bed in the middle of winter and gives birth alone in an abandoned warehouse; and the woman who, after a lifetime spent in an asylum, believes she is pregnant only to find out that she has entered early menopause brought on by a lobotomy performed without her consent. There's the teenage prostitute who escapes her pimp and brothel to give birth, only to have her baby taken away for a closed adoption. One memorable episode finds Jenny Lee caring for a woman known only as Mrs. Jenkins, who lost her five small children to the workhouse (think Oliver Twist), never knowing where they are buried.

But before you run away screaming from all these feelings, take a breather. There are fun moments, too.

In the 1950s, childbirth was still a women's sphere. Men weren't allowed in the delivery room (which, in this case, is usually a woman's bedroom). This makes for an intimate look at a matriarchal community that, to some extent, disappeared with the rise of hospital births. These women laugh together, cook together, gossip together, learn how to breastfeed together. In some ways, it's a predecessor to the type female friendship that has been so capably portrayed by Broad City. After a tough day helping the ladies of Poplar through childbirth, the nurses often end up drinking Scotch in their nighties, much as you would traipse over to your best friends' place with a bottle of rosé today. (Of course it's rosé — I see you.)

With this female-centric space comes an unflinching attitude toward the female anatomy. Which brings us to the birth scenes. These are not pretty, Hollywood births hinted at by matted hair on the pillow or slightly damp but oh-so-sweet pajamas. These births are gritty: There are fluids, things tear and bleed, faces contort in unspeakable pain.
Photo: Courtesy of Laurence Cendrowicz/Neal Street Productions
As a woman who has not had children, I have come to the conclusion that there is truly nothing more terrifying and dangerous than the process of bringing another human being into the world. (Seriously, thank you Mom. I'm not sure I was worth all that.) And that's the beauty of Call the Midwife — for every wildfire inferno in Westeros, there are countless births here in the real world that are every bit as risky and magical.

All of this to say that in addition to the hijinks of mischievous nuns hiding the cake tin from one another, and young nurses frolicking on bicycles (there is all of that), the show has more than enough drama to keep you glued to Netflix (where seasons 1 through 4 are currently available).

The most recent season, which will air its Christmas episode on December 25, is perhaps the most fraught of all. All over the neighborhood, babies are being born with deformities that no one can understand. As viewers, we know that they are caused by the thalidomide that is being prescribed to mothers with morning sickness. This makes watching the doctors searching for the cause even more difficult — we know it's them.

As Emily Nussbaum notes in her review, "It’s a story about progress gone sour."

Progress is the silent protagonist on Call the Midwife. Poplar, along with all of East London, is changing. The show never shies away from the poverty or squalor: families of six living in two-room council flats with no hot water, entire buildings sharing outdoor toilets, mothers boiling diapers to reuse them over and over again. (In one episode, a rat literally bites a baby in its pram.) But these things are never shown gratuitously, but rather to underscore the change that is occurring all around. By the fifth season, hospital births are clearly the way of the future. Children are being vaccinated and illnesses cured, all courtesy of the National Health system, which provides health services for free. (As a Canadian, I take this for granted, but it's a concept most Americans might find hard to fathom.) Call the Midwife is often touted as "the new Downton Abbey," but unlike the latter, the introduction of diversity — racial, social, economic — doesn't feel forced. Everyone has babies, and they all need midwives.

Call the Midwife
can get overly touchy-feely in its tear-jerking nostalgia. But I forgive all that.
The series allows viewers to go back to a time when the milkman still made his rounds every morning and children ran around unfettered. It also gives a sense of how far we've come socially and scientifically in just a few short decades. In some ways, it is like Downton Abbey, but with a wider lens: fewer hairstyles and glamorous dresses, more human connections.
It's gooier than a warm, salted-caramel brownie — and just as delicious.

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