For the growing fan base of period drama, the BBC's "Call the Midwife," which debuts Sunday on PBS, fits in chronologically and somewhat thematically between "Downton Abbey" and "Mad Men."
Set in London's very pre-revitalized East End during the late 1950s and based on the memoir of Jennifer Worth, it chronicles the adventures of a group of midwives working at the Nonnatus House, a nursing convent named for the early cesarean-surviving patron saint of childbirth. Although first and foremost the tale of the plucky middle-class "gels" (hard g) learning about life, "Call the Midwife" is also a quite timely valentine to socialized medicine.
The midwives, as well as the clinics, doctors and ambulance drivers who tend to the East End's poor, are all employees of Britain's then-newly established National Health Service and nary an episode goes by without the reminder, often via voice-over by the glorious Vanessa Redgrave, that this baby or that mother would have most certainly died without the services provided by the NHS.
The stories revolve around the young and comely Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) who becomes a midwife out of a desire to do good but also to escape the perils of a thwarted romance. She joins two other young women, as well as a terrific quartet of nuns including Sister Monica-Joan (Judy Parfitt), an original midwife whose slide into old age is marked by poetic yet shrewd observations and a love of sweets, and Sister Evangelina (the always wonderful Pam Ferris), a tart-tongued child of poverty with no time for emotional shilly-shallying. Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) runs the place, and not since "The Sound of Music's" Mother Superior have we seen such regal kindliness.