About the only American-made TV shows Nancy and I watch these days are the ones that aren’t dependent on good writing or compelling stories. Every once in a while we try to test the waters, but we’ve learned that the search for good, solid American made drama is like careening through a field full of Don Quixote’s windmills. As Newton Minnow put it over fifty years ago, television is “a vast wasteland.”
Thankfully, I’m not at the point of despair. The British have rescued me.
About four years ago, Nancy kept prodding me to watch a P.B.S. series called Lark Rise to Candleford. I resisted. I grew up immersed in muscular westerns like Shane and High Noon and it seemed to me that a British drama would move too slowly for me. But, once I started watching I was hooked. The episodes, based on Flora Thompson’s trilogy about life in two adjacent British villages during the Victorian/Edwardian eras, focused on human interaction, family, faith, and love. The dialogue was simple, yet also profound. There was no violence. The American obsession with sex was refreshingly absent.
It was the beginning of what has become a very satisfying journey. After the last episode of Lark Rise to Candleford aired a couple of years ago, I graduated to Downton Abbey. I was about to despair when Downton Abbey’s season ended. But, the British rescued me again; with a series titled Call the Midwife.
As it was with Lark Rise to Candleford, Call the Midwife has wrapped love, beauty, simplicity, grace, and the pains of everyday life¸ into exquisitely crafted packages that have not only engaged my mind, but also my gut.
The series is based on British author Jennifer Worth’s trilogy about her experiences during the 1950’s as a midwife at Nonnatus House, a convent/care center situated on London’s east end. The cast is ensemble, which means that the audience can focus on the story. While I’ve grown to admire each of the characters, my favorite has become Sister Monica Joan. She’s the oldest of the nuns at Nonnatus House. At times she’s scatter-brained, but there are times when she’s the focal point of wisdom for the midwives and her fellow nuns. She’s suffering from dementia, but somehow manages occasional bursts of creativity. One minute you’ll hear her muttering incoherently. Then, at the perfect moment, wisdom comes flowing out in torrents. In a recent episode, one of the midwives asks her if she took up the nun’s life because she loved the work. “Of course not,” she snapped. “Can anyone love filth and squalor? Or lice and rats? Who can love aching weariness, and carry on working, in spite of it? One cannot love these things. One can only love God, and through His grace come to love His people.”
Each episode revolves around the miracles of birth and the crises that often come with them. As with the cast, I’ve loved all the stories, but there’s one in particular that reached deeper into my gut than I thought was possible. It’s the story of an expectant mother and her fisherman husband. She’s already lost one child and the fear of losing another weighs on her like a funeral shroud. The child is born and all seems to be well. But the mother develops a postpartum psychosis, believing that the only way for her to protect the child is to commit suicide and take the child with her. After a harrowing rescue, the young mother is institutionalized. The doctors decide that the only cure for her is shock treatment. As the scene depicting the treatments began to unfold I wanted to turn away, but couldn’t. I began to sob uncontrollably, thinking about the ordeal my mother went through after my father died. The weight of being the sole care-giver for three children, compounded by the fact that she was barely literate, was too much for her. She had a complete nervous breakdown. For almost two years the Commonwealth of Massachusetts tinkered with her. The shock treatments took an enormous toll. On the day she was discharged from the hospital she weighed less than 80 pounds.
For the rest of her life, she fought with every ounce of strength she could muster to keep her family together
I’ve occasionally asked myself how or why my mother could endure such pain.
In the episode’s final moments the young mother is seen at home with her child and husband. The long road to reconciliation has begun. A voice-over concludes, “It’s love that gives us the strength to endure the pains that life often dishes out.”
Love truly is the only answer that makes sense.
Newton Minnow was right. When television is bad, it’s a vast wasteland. But, when it’s really good it gets into your gut and teaches you what it means to be fully human.