Filmmakers have been putting damsels in distress since pictures were first made to move. And Call the Midwife, which returns to PBS for its fourth season on Sunday night, is the ultimate 21st-century feminist spin on the genre. Instead of kindly gents rescuing helpless women who’ve been tied to railway tracks by mustache-twirling villains, Call the Midwife shows a dedicated band of nurses and nuns saving pregnant women whose health and welfare are imperiled by poverty and misinformation.
Well, the young women in uniform usually save the day, but the terrible odds stacked against them—the lack of resources, the primitive state of obstetrics in the 1950s and early ’60s, and the frailty of the flesh, to name a few—mean that they don’t always prevail. The stakes on Call the Midwife are a matter of life and death, and that makes the show absolutely terrifying. When fetal heartbeats are monitored by placing an ear trumpet on a pregnant woman’s belly, humans seem alarmingly vulnerable.
Whether births happen in hospitals, the mother’s home, or—as in one memorable scene early in the new season—on the back seat of a car, the lack of high-tech medical equipment is striking. In this way it’s similar to Cinemax’s The Knick, in which Clive Owen plays a star doctor at a New York hospital in the early 20th century. But while The Knick is mostly a horrorscape of retro technology and sky-high mortality rates, Call the Midwife’s appeal stems in part from nostalgia for the simpler, scarier days of yore—especially for older British viewers who recognize references to things like Sanatogen tonic wine that youngsters and Americans miss. That doesn’t mean it’s a Pollyanna-ish whitewashing of the olden days. Immigrants from the West Indies are subject to racist comments, lesbians know that they must hide their relationships, and underprivileged children come shockingly close to starvation. But even the worst monster it can conjure—a selfish, neglectful mother—is given a sympathy-inducing backstory: She didn’t want children, but the medical establishment refused to tie her tubes.
Unlike the devoted and sometimes dotty nuns they live with in London’s East End, the young nurses haven’t renounced the world. When they’re not dealing with birth, death, and bodily fluids, they relieve the unremitting tension with romances, Cinzano Bianco, and the musical stylings of Billy Fury. They make a life of service seem rewarding, sexy, and downright thrilling.
Like Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife provides stealth history lessons, but whereas Downton tends to linger on big-ticket items like world wars and sinking ships, Call the Midwife focuses on the gradual social changes in one East End neighborhood. In the coming season, hot-button social issues like immigration, homosexuality, and abortion have their days, but the show’s greatest strength is its ability to demonstrate the complexity of its characters’ personal dilemmas. Will Trixie settle down with her curate? Can Shelagh find an appropriate work-life balance? Can the newly arrived nurse introduce innovations she’s learned about in earlier postings without upsetting the nuns at Nonnatus House? The questions might seem trivial, but like birth itself, they are often agonizingly difficult. And they make Call the Midwife worth watching.