Why can't novels be more like my favorite TV show?

No surprise in a recent WTTW announcement that Call the Midwife is viewers’ favorite show. As was clear when I wrote about it in 2017, it’s an all-time favorite of mine.

When I started rewatching Call the Midwife a few weeks ago, it was going to be one episode a day. That quickly grew to two or three as the uplifting BBC production proved to be perfect mental-health booster during the pandemic.  

Call the Midwife began as an adaption of a book, the memoirs of Jennifer Lee Worth, a young nurse-midwife who lived and worked with Anglican religious midwives in the impoverished East End of London in the 1950s. Heartwarming and inspiring stories such as Call the Midwife are the lifeblood of memoirs but often pooh-poohed in literary fiction circles. Qualities that I think are hard to find in a literary novel — such as hope, warmth, gladness, and change for the better — are present in spades in the television series. 

Back in the 2000s, frustrated by the gloominess of much literary fiction, I began a search for upbeat novels that resulted in the website Positively Good Reads. To spread the word about the site, I sent a press release to some people in the book business. A few questioned the very notion of upbeat literature. Problems aren’t usually resolved in real life, one said.

Even a good friend chided me for wanting happy endings. It isn’t necessarily happy endings that I want, I’d explain, but I hope to finish a serious novel not wanting to jump off a bridge. Hardship and tragedy can be expected in realistic fiction, but I want the characters to learn and grow from these challenges.

If Call the Midwife had been on television then (series 1 ran in 2012), I could have pointed to it as the kind of story I’m looking for.

With its 10th season coming up on PBS this fall, and having long moved beyond the true incidents in Worth’s book, the BBC-produced drama reliably manages to balance sadness and sweetness. The residents of Poplar, as the East End neighborhood is called, have dealt with every hardship that writer Heidi Thomas could imagine over the series’ long run, including postpartum mental illness, backroom abortions, diseases, congenital disabilities, domestic abuse, generational tensions, and the ever-present extreme poverty. Finding support from one another and strength from within, Poplar residents and nurse-midwives come through the suffering. Without sugar-coating, each episode ends with my faith in humanity renewed.

Television critics praise Call the Midwife. “The cast is marvelous, the gritty, postwar set pieces are meticulously recreated, and . . . the story always has its eye on uplift and good cheer,” said the Washington Post‘s Hank Stuever. “[W]e go on, buoyed by hope and love. Not exactly an original message, but it is one that Midwife delivers convincingly,” wrote David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle. 

It perplexes me then that literary critics, in contrast, are wont to accept as a given that serious fiction in book form must be dark because real life is dismal. 

Whether or not you’ve already seen past seasons of Call the Midwife, I recommend taking advantage of the rebroadcast on Netflix. If you don’t have Netflix, WTTW Prime (Channel 37) is rerunning episodes at 7 p.m. Tuesdays and midnight and 9 a.m. Wednesdays. You won’t be able to start from the beginning, but each episode is self-contained, and you’ll catch on to the main characters. If you are hooked, you can tune in to season 10 on WTTW beginning in October. Good news for us fans: Call the Midwife has already been renewed for an 11th season in 2022.

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  • I totally agree with you. Sometimes it's so necessary to get some positive vibes. Modern TW shows are aimed at real-life stories, and it's often sad. I've not seen Call the Midwife, but after this article, I'd like to.

  • Thanks for writing, Carol. I don't think you'll be disappointed if you check out CTM.

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