BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- PBS takes an unusual step into scripted drama tonight with the premiere of British import "Call the Midwife" (8 p.m., WQED-TV). It's not that the public broadcaster has never aired scripted programming outside of the "Masterpiece" banner but it has been quite a while.
At the Television Critics Association summer press tour in July, PBS president Paula Kerger noted that "Brideshead Revisited" aired on public TV stations in 1982 but not as a "Masterpiece" production.
"['Masterpiece' executive producer] Rebecca Eaton called our attention to ['Call the Midwife']," Ms. Kerger said. "She didn't think that it was quite right for 'Masterpiece' ... We've been looking at really trying to create experiences for our viewers where we're aligning programs; we were certainly open to looking for good and compelling drama series. And we were aware of the success of 'Call the Midwife' in the U.K., and while looking at the series, we thought this would really be great for an American audience. We thought it would actually be a good companion to 'Masterpiece.'"
And indeed it is. Set in 1950s London, the series is based on the memoirs of real-life midwife Jennifer Worth and follows Jenny Lee, played by Jessica Raine (except in narration when Vanessa Redgrave gives voice to a more mature Jenny).
Jenny arrives in London's East End and meets her new co-workers, including the slightly daft Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) and the in-command Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter). It's 1957 and Jenny, 22, moves into Nonnatus House, which is her home base for work as a midwife. Several other younger midwives also live there, including glamorous Trixie (Helen George), quiet Cynthia (Byrony Hannah) and my favorite, the ever-awkward Chummy (Miranda Hart), who arrives in episode two.
Jenny is initially shocked by the situations and conditions she encounters, including a woman who is in her 25th pregnancy; a pregnant woman with a venereal disease and another woman who has a home delivery.
The first episode offers a somewhat overwhelming dose of midwifery, to the point that some viewers may wonder how "Call the Midwife" won't grow tiresome with repetitive birthing stories. The addition of Chummy to the cast in episode two and a broader role for the midwives -- in episode three Jenny simply spends time with an elderly man -- allows the series to avoid growing stale.
Tall, gangly and eager-to-please, Chummy is an endearing scene-stealer who brings lighter moments to "Call the Midwife." Her inability to ride a bike -- how all the midwives get around to their appointments -- leads her to collide with a possible love interest.
Written with smarts and heart by Heidi Thomas ("Cranford," the new "Upstairs Downstairs"), "Call the Midwife" became an instant hit when it debuted in England in January, breaking records to become BBC1's most-watched drama series premiere since the current British ratings system began in 2001, according to British publications. In England, the "Midwife" premiere even beat "Sherlock," which airs on PBS under the "Masterpiece" banner.
Although the time period for "Midwife" is about 30 years after "Downton Abbey," "Midwife" offers a similar mix of warm drama with moments of character comedy that should appeal to "Downton Abbey" fans frustrated by the wait until the Crawley clan returns to PBS in January.
In the meantime, I'll be waiting for the inevitable American, modernized remake of "Call the Midwife." How does "Text the Doula" sound?
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.