How I Keep Calm: PBS Masterpiece

These cozy British mysteries and period dramas are perfect for a crisis.

I would inject the opening credits of PBS Masterpiece straight into my veins if I could. The crimson backdrop, the turning pages, the blaring trumpets… that is what settling in for an evening sounds like.

I’ve been a lifelong PBS fanatic. I was raised on Zoom. For as long as I can remember, one of my favorite weeknight activities has been watching Antiques Roadshow with my mom. But nothing compares to the crown jewel of PBS shows, Masterpiece, the program responsible for bringing cozy British mysteries and period dramas to American television sets since 1971.

Masterpiece first became my obsession in college. It was the thing I turned to when I couldn’t sleep and needed distraction. My undergrad thesis was inspired entirely by a late night binge of the 2002 adaptation of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, starring a young Hugh Dancy as a dashing English aristocrat caught between a snarky and spoiled society girl and an earnest Jewish opera singer (yes, it is worth watching). I religiously watched Downton Abbey even after they axed a few too many of my favorite characters. I now know quite a bit about mining in Cornwall thanks to Poldark.

Masterpiece programming is perfect for a crisis. For one, it’s made for binging. Each offering is at least a four-part miniseries, and most things are much longer. Foyle’s War has eight seasons. Father Brown has nine. The entire programming slate has been running for nearly 50 years. No matter how long we’re all stuck social distancing, you will not run out of this content.

Moreover, it’s inflected with a “keep calm and carry on” sensibility that I crave when stressed. No matter the time period, the tone remains the same. London after the Blitz? A quaint village with an improbably-high murder rate? A mid-nineteenth century manor house where everyone insists they are destitute despite living in a perfectly lovely manor house? Somehow, everyone gets by. They fortify themselves with tea and tasteful outfits. They may not end up entirely happy, but they’re managing. No one panics. It’s a curated fantasy of Britishness rooted in works of fiction, but it’s also a promise that life persists.

Ready to dive in? Well, maybe don’t start Downton Abbey just now (the flu pandemic episode might be a little too on the nose). But there is plenty else to watch.

Need a dose of hope and maybe a good cry? Try Call The Midwife. This series is like distilled human resolve. It follows a group of midwives working out of a convent in the 1950s. Each episode follows the same rough formula: The midwives do house calls for a few families in Poplar, a working-class community in London’s East End. Some of the patients are getting ready to give birth. Some require other kinds of medical care. We see the midwives navigate the strain of their professional and personal lives. A baby is born. The disembodied voice of Vanessa Redgrave imparts some beautifully articulated wisdom about love and life cycles and healing. You weep into your tea.

The show tackles every kind of difficult pregnancy, chronic illness, and social issue (and I mean every one) with tenderness and relentless hope. It takes a resolutely optimistic view on humanity and modern medicine. It presents the great diversity of London life with care. There are also, for those keeping track, two whole Jewish episodes and a nominally Jewish reoccurring character in later seasons. For a show set in a convent, I’d call that a win.

Or maybe you’re looking for something with a bit more murder? Perhaps Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, one of the rare Australian offerings from Masterpiece, would be for you. It is about the glamorous Phryne Fisher, a private detective and amateur pilot in 1920s Melbourne solving murders that are varying degrees of absurd. It’s opulent, funny, feminist, and romantic. The token Jewish episode involves a murder in a bookshop and the classic Yiddish song “Raisins and Almonds.” Miss Fisher’s is the cozy murder mystery series for those whose idea of cozy involves gin and destroying the patriarchy. I highly recommend it.

Or maybe you just want a compulsively watchable, slice-of-life series where nothing much happens? Then you’ll want The Durrells in Corfu, my current distraction of choice. The Durrells follows a single mother and her four insufferable children after they relocate to Greece from England. They adjust to life on the island. They snipe at each other and befriend a group of eccentric locals. It’s hilarious and unexpectedly timely, a reminder of the human capacity to rise to the occasion and face challenging circumstances with grit and good humor.

Whatever you choose to watch next, I hope you find your escape and source of strength. I hope you find a way to keep calm and carry on.

how I keep calm

How I Keep Calm is our new series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail hello@heyalma.com with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.

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