If you have been in a one mile radius of me anytime in the past few weeks, you have probably heard me tell you all about how I love “Call The Midwife,” mention I’m going home to watch “Call The Midwife,” or suggest you watch “Call The Midwife.” That is because — yup — I am obsessed with the PBS drama “Call The Midwife.”
The premise is this: Jenny Lee (actress Jessica Raine) is a 22-year-old midwife in the 1950s hired for her first nursing job in an impoverished section of London’s East End. She’s had a privileged, sheltered upbringing and the poverty she sees in Poplar is like nothing she’s ever experienced. Nurse Jenny lives at Nonnatus House, a convent run by nuns who are also nurses, with three of her other 20something midwives: Nurse Trixie is the house glamour girl who loves boys, dancing and gossip; Nurse Cynthia is the thoughtful, quiet one, and Chummy is a gawky, awkward nurse from a titled family who is an embarrassment to her parents but finally finds a place in life working amongst the poor.
Here’s just a few reasons why “Call The Midwife” is such a great show:
1. Babies, everywhere. Seriously, who doesn’t love babies? There are several babies in every episode, including teeny-tiny ones that have just been born. Half the time I watch this show, I want to have a baby. The other half of the time, I want to deliver one.
2. Every episode gets all up in some woman’s vagina. Unlike say, “Friends,” where Rachel gave birth with pretty-perfect hair looking like she just came out of the salon, on “Call The Midwife” all the birthing mamas scream and shout and huff and puff like real life. And that’s not the only part that’s realistic. This is a show about childbirth and yup, they show how real midwives operate. The actresses on “Call The Midwife” spend a good amount of time between other actresses’ legs as they coax babies out of the birth canal. And yes, you see bloodied newborn babies (both prosthetic babies and real four- or five-day-old babies) right being born. I’m not saying it will make anyone queasy, but it’s definitely the most realistic depiction of childbirth I’ve ever seen on TV. I have enormous respect now for anyone who delivers babies, because “Call The Midwife” proves it is an expertise.
3. Women are portrayed as strong, capable and worthy of respect. I had expected that the doctors and nurses in ’50s London would behave more paternalistically towards the pregnant women in their care. But actually, the women on the show are given tons of agency in their medical decisions (if not, necessarily, by the impoverished circumstances of their lives). I’m sure the show glosses over sexism, but still, most of the men on the show are nervous husbands, pacing outside the bedroom door smoking cigarettes while the women attend to the childbirth in private. Really, this is a show about women. The women on the show, from the new mothers to the nuns to the midwives, are all portrayed as fully formed human beings whose lives only involve men as side characters.
4. It explores social issues, many of which are connected to class issues and women’s rights issues. In 1950s era working class London, women were pretty much relegated to the role of housewives or lesser-paid careers. We see through their experiences with childbirth and families just how class and gender affects these women’s lives. Although most of “Call The Midwife” focuses on Jenny learning the ropes of midwifery (and mourning a lost love), the show explores all sorts of social issues encountered during their work, including incest, statutory rape, prostitution, domestic abuse, and abortion. Yet its on PBS, you could still watch it with your grandma.
5. The nuns on the show are quite progressive. When I first started watching the show, I worried that the four nuns of Nonnatus House were going to impose their beliefs on the four young midwives working alongside them.
But Catholicism doesn’t factor much into their practice. Update: Several commenters have pointed out, correctly, that the Nonnatus House nuns are Anglican, not Catholic. [Telegraph UK] In fact, there’s one episode that involves a woman whose condoms fail her and the attending nun-midwife says nothing about it; in the episode that deals with incest, the nuns are much less judgmental than I would have been.
6. The show deals with old age in a manner we just don’t see on television. One of the midwife nuns in Nonnatus House, Sister Monica Joan, is in her late 70s or 80s. She no longer practices midwifery, but still lives in the home as a sort of elder statesman. Unfortunately, Sister Monica Joan is also going senile. She’s prone to making some very weird remarks and “She said what?!” moments on the show. While her batty behavior is often played up for laughs, her failing physical and mental health is treated as a seriously plotline. Just how often do you see old age portrayed respectfully on TV?
7. Wistfulness of dating from days gone by. Okay, I don’t actually want to date like it’s the 1950s: Jenny and her midwife friends have to go on dates with chaperones. It takes them, like, four dates to even get a peck on the lips. But it is really cute to watch watch dating was like when there was only one telephone in the house and there were no cell phones or computers to complicate communications. Courtship rituals seems much sweeter.
8. Unlike “Downton Abbey,” the love affairs don’t drag on and on and on. I can’t be the only one who wanted to stab Mary and Matthew in the eyeballs with a scepter, right? A couple of the midwives are involved in romances on “Call The Midwife” but those plotlines are so secondary to the actual plot, which is always about delivering babies.
9. Those British accents. To be honest, sometimes I can’t understand the more Cockney accents on the show. But the lead actress, Jessica Raine, has the most lovely, posh British accent that I could listen to all day long.
10. The oldies-but-goodies soundtrack. It’s easy to forget how fun ’50s music used to be, even though it was mostly pretty chaste. I will never not be instantly put in a good mood by classic doo wop songs, like “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” by Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers.
11. The outfits. Forget about the costumes on “Mad Men.” It’s all about poodle skirts and red lipstick.
12. You can watch much of it for free online! The first season is screening on Netflix, which requires a subscription. But the second season is screening for free on PBS.org. Episodes expire on June 18th, so don’t delay![PBS: Call The Midwife]