It is perhaps appropriate that American PBS stations should be premiering the second season of the British drama Call the Midwife on Easter Sunday. As the commemoration of Christ’s resurrections, Easter carries with it connotations of the preciousness of life—embodied life—consonant with the beginning of the spring season. And Call the Midwife is a show deeply interested in the entire sweep of human life.
Call the Midwife quickly became a hit in England, rivaling Downton Abbey in popularity, and its first season gave PBS reliably good ratings as well. Based on the memoirs of the late Jennifer Worth, the series follows the life of the (somewhat) naïve young midwife Jennie Lee (Jessica Raine) as she assists a team of midwives under the supervision of the nuns in Nonnatus House. Their job is to provide the best possible prenatal care to the pregnant women of London’s impoverished East End in the 1950s, an eye-opening experience for Jennie, who has had little prior experience with the level of poverty and need she encounters.
What impressed me about the show’s first season was the beautifully unconventional way it celebrated the entire scope of human life. Though Jennie and her fellow midwives are young, single women, the show is perhaps more thoroughly interested in the bookends of human existence: its beginning and its ending. As one would expect in a work about midwives, babies—before and after birth—constitute one major focus. Each episode tends to span several weeks, so we encounter women throughout various stages of pregnancy, with the children usually arriving sometime near the episode’s climax. Birth, then, is the culmination of a process, a process we have seen the conscientious women of Nonnatus House faithfully assisting in over time. Given the low-income life situations of the various mothers, these birth sequences—which manage to be medically and historically accurate, yet also tasteful—become truly suspenseful, since infant mortality is a very real fact of life. Having followed the mothers through their travails while also rooting for the midwives who unfailingly wish the best for the newborns, the audience feels personally invested in each baby as he or she enters the world.
Less intuitively, however, Call the Midwife is also a show about the continued significance of human life as it nears its ending. Many of the nuns at Nonnatus House are older, and they all take very seriously their charge to care for the idiosyncratic Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt), whose dementia causes her behavior to become increasingly erratic. She is often at odds with another older nun, the no-nonsense Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris), a formidable presence who grew up knowing the same poverty as the East-Enders experience. In the third episode of season one, Jennie cares for an affable veteran named Joe (Roy Hudd), who retains a boisterous exuberance and charm even after much personal trauma, but whose health gradually fails since he has no one (but Jennie) left to advocate on his behalf.
Indeed, the waifish Jennie is arguably the least engaging character in the series, and I half suspect this is intentional. She becomes more of a cipher through which the audience encounters the show’s other people, an almost blank canvas upon which they write their lives. Appropriately, Call the Midwife is paced with voiceovers by Vanessa Redgrave as the narration of an older Jennie, a Jennie with the same dignity of years that the sisters around her possess, each in her own distinct way. In a culture like ours, which well-nigh worships single twenty-something youth, it is refreshing to watch a show whose primary interest lies in almost every other phase of life, testifying that human persons are significant before their births and in their last halting, feeble breaths.
Despite its religious trappings, Call the Midwife is not exactly a profoundly theological drama. The moral or ethical interpretations of its characters—including the nuns—do not always accord with what one would expect from traditional church teachings (particularly in the fifth episode). The first season holds back on some of the more controversial themes one might expect it to encounter (abortion, euthanasia, etc.). These themes may very well be broached in season two; series star Jessica Raine contends that “some of the issues tackled in this [season] are more delicate and difficult too.” If so, I honestly do not know what stances (if any) the show’s writers will take; season two has already aired in Britain, but I have purposely avoided details about its subject matter.
Whatever the results, however, I expect such “delicate and difficult” topics to be treated with the gravity they deserve. Call the Midwife can be side-splittingly hilarious at times, from Sister Monica Joan’s amusing strings of non sequiturs to the self-effacing wit of midwife Camilla “Chummy” Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Brown (award-winning Miranda Hart); yet it is first and foremost about that solemnest of all earthly mysteries, the sanctity and significance of human life. Each laugh is hard-earned, each wound is excruciating, because the viewer is thrust into the lives of the characters, characters that are invested with the dynamic complexities of real people. God thought so highly of human life that he sent his only Son to conquer death; and any show that can celebrate that life as effectively as Call the Midwife is of abiding value.