When the BBC series Call the Midwife began airing on U.S. public television this fall, it was hailed as the next Downton Abbey by those Americans starved for English period drama during the Downton hiatus. And at first glance the two shows do seem to fill the same need in our lives, with their dulcet British-accented tones and perfectly coiffed hairdos. They both take on the clash of classes, they both take place in olden-timey England (if the 1950s qualify as such) and they both happen to air on Sunday nights.
But Call the Midwife isn’t Downton. It’s format is more episodic and procedural and less soapy, and its melodrama is hidden under a matter-of-fact illustration of the benefits of the National Health Service. A more accurate comparison is that ER : Gossip Girl :: Call the Midwife : Downton Abbey.
Not that DA fans will be disappointed by CTM. If you haven’t watched yet, here are five reasons to catch up, one for each of the episodes that has aired so far (all available streaming here). You’ve still got time before the first season finale airs this Sunday night, Nov. 4.
1. It’s based on a true story.
Call the Midwife‘s protagonist and narrator is the young nurse Jenny Lee, who moves to the East End of London in the 1950s to work at Nonnatus House, a convent and midwifery clinic serving the gritty, working-class area. She’s based on a real person, Jennifer Worth, née Lee, the author of three midwife memoirs, who died in 2011 at age 75.
(MORE: Midwife Mania for U.S. Babies)
2. It’s better than baby reality shows.
Call the Midwife is, at heart, a medical show about childbirth: in each episode, one or more babies enter the world with more or less ease. Word to the wise: at least a few minutes of every episode feature labor, complete with full-volume shrieking and moaning. Turn down the volume lest your neighbors think you are murdering someone. Still, it’s much easier on the eyes and ears than the rest of the birth-centric fare on television, which tends to go in the direction of I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant or Snooki & JWoww.
3. The fashions are more easily adopted than Edwardian garb.
The early-’50s ensembles worn by Jenny Lee and her compatriots (especially the token blonde clotheshorse Trixie Franklin, played by Helen George) are much more useful for non-costume fashion ideas than Downton‘s couture could ever be—even Lady Sybil’s harem pants. When the nurses aren’t in uniform, they go for fitted dresses or full skirts paired with blouses or sweaters. Almost every outfit looks like something Taylor Swift would wear.
4. It’s educational, sort of.
Not that Call the Midwife is academic-level social history, but it’s a glimpse at a world that doesn’t really exist anymore—the preservation of which was, according to Jennifer Worth’s Guardian obituary, one of the reasons the author wrote her experiences down. The tenements and wharfs of the East End are hard to reconcile with the 20th-century setting; even the nurses often can’t believe what they see.
5. Stick around and you do get to see a country manor…and it has a swimming pool, too!
If what you like about Downton is the architecture, a home like the manor does have a cameo in the second-to-last episode of the season. (Okay, if you what you like about Downton is the architecture, just hang on till it comes back. On the other hand, if you’re more interested in urban planning…)