Dramatic Sunday evenings with PBS

It’s Sunday evening, almost 7 p.m. My excitement grows as I get cozy on the couch, pick up the remote, and turn on Chicago public television station WTTW. An episode of my favorite show, Call the Midwife, is about to start.

The program will be recorded on my TiVo and available on the WTTW website. As a WTTW Passport member, I could stream new episodes  before they air, even the whole eight-episode season. Instead, I tune in the scheduled broadcast, as if it were 1970 and I have no choice about when to watch.   

Spending Sunday night with a PBS drama is a ritual for me. As rituals do, it provides predictability, excited anticipation, and satisfaction.

I can’t remember when public television first claimed my Sunday evenings, but it was probably before there were VCRs. PBS dramas, which were often British period pieces, offered a gentle transition between the end of the weekend and the start of the workweek. 

As the PBS Sunday evening programming evolved, most of it imported from Britain and aired under the banner “Masterpiece,” contemporary and mystery dramatic series were added to the mix. British period dramas remained a mainstay, but no more could they all be stereotyped as gentle. 

One multiple-episode series followed another all year long, and popular series returned for new seasons the next year. I came to associate Sunday evening with drama on PBS the same way some people associate Sunday morning with churchgoing and Saturday night with dinner out and a movie. 

Even though I don’t have a workweek anymore, and scheduled TV is becoming passé with recorders and streaming, I continue the Sunday night ritual. To watch a PBS drama in midseason at another time would feel as off-kilter as would the weekend’s being shifted to Tuesday and Wednesday. 

I’m not unusual. According to the executive producer, younger newcomers to Masterpiece stream the episodes at a time of their choice, but the core audience — those of us who have been with Masterpiece for decades — still watches on Sunday nights.

I suspect we get a sense of connection knowing that we’re watching at the same time as so many others. My friends who are also Sunday-nights-with-PBS loyalists sometimes get an emailed commentary from me late Sunday or early Monday.

Occasionally the WTTW schedule lists a nondrama between the end of one series and the beginning of another. I’ll look for a movie, but Sunday evening then seems more like any other night in front of the TV.

If scheduled TV goes away during my lifetime, I can see myself streaming PBS drama series on Sunday nights, one episode a week, replicating a tradition that has brought me much pleasure.

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  • Don't worry about me phoning on Sunday nights. I'll be watching, too, and for many of the reasons you mentioned. I also loved "Mystery!" on PBS, back when it was separate from the "Masterpiece" shows. I remember getting the TV listings on Sunday and finding out which Sherlock Holmes story was coming up. I'd have a few days to read the original before the show -- Thursday, I think --- and it was great to find out where they'd used the book properly and where they changed it. Early editing practice, I guess.

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