Call the Midwife (PBS)

It may seem strange to recommend a show about midwives in London’s East End in the late 1950s to a group of guys.  There are a lot of stories about pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for newborns.  But over the course of its five seasons, this extraordinarily well-written series finds a way to cover a whole range of other kinds of issues,, not just those related to childbirth — unwanted pregnancies, forced adoptions, domestic violence, childhood illnesses — but also more general social issues, like substance abuse, racial and class prejudice, PTSD, the social problems of urban renewal, and even the rewards (and difficulties) of a religious vocation.  These issues are examined in a realistic, remarkably non-judgmental way.  Things don’t always work out, but the midwives (and the nuns they live with) try to do their best for the women they care for, however difficult the situation.

The show is particularly good at depicting the problems of the aging poor.  There were many civilian deaths in the East End during WWII, which means that many lost, not just fighting-age sons, but spouses and young children in the war, leaving many to grow old alone. In this show about birth, it’s noteworthy that some of the best episodes are about death.

Most interesting, to me at least, is what I would call the “medical sociology” aspects.  Whatever you think of government-run health care, it is undeniable that, in this poor part of London, the NHS brought first-world quality medical care to a population that had traditionally received charity care, or none at all.  (Indeed, some of the services, including frequent pre- and post-natal home visits, is probably better than a lot of women sometimes get today in the US). That dramatic improvement in access to medical care changed the relationship of people in these neighborhoods with their government, in ways not always easy to foresee.

Although the show was originally based on the memoirs of one young nurse, starting in Season 4, they ran out of source material and developed fictional storylines.  The later seasons remain well-written, but are perhaps a bit more political than the early ones (a doctor, faced with a measles epidemic, sighs, “If only we had a vaccine.”). But the “thalidomide” episodes, following the local medical practitioners as they slowly realize that the unprecedented birth defects they are seeing in newborns are actually the result of drugs they themselves have prescribed, are some of the best they’ve ever done.  All the same, the later episodes lack some of the quirkiness of the earlier “real-life” ones, like the story of identical twins who apparently share a husband — no scriptwriter would dare to make that up.

Parental advisory:  This is a show about childbirth.  There is at least one birth scene per episode, sometimes more.   The realities of childbirth are clearly presented, but are not overly explicit– e.g., you might see blood on a newborn’s head, and the occasional nipple as a newborn latches on.  But you won’t see any female genitalia..  No child over 12 will be traumatized.  Can’t promise the same for queasy adult males, though.

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