When young veterinarian James Herriot first opened his eyes and saw the richly green hills around Darrowby in the new adaptation of All Creatures Great And Small, I felt my shoulders drop. When he saw the village tucked—it must be said—adorably into the valley between them, I felt my breathing slow.
Darrowby is the fictional setting for the real James Herriot's books about his life as a vet in Yorkshire, England, and the new All Creatures Great and Small that arrived on PBS on Sunday night after a successful run in the UK is the second television version of those stories to feature a fictionalized Herriot (here played by Nicholas Ralph) joining the veterinary practice of Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West) and, eventually, Siegfried's brother Tristan (Callum Woodhouse). The first version ran from 1978 to 1990, and while I remember almost nothing about it, it's one of the shows that formed my general impression of PBS shows when I was young: gentle, calm, funny without a laugh track, and very popular with parents, mine included. And now, as a person older than they were at the time, I have—not for the first time—come around to their way of thinking.
The new All Creatures Great and Small is, above all else, soothing. Not because it is mindless or merely distracting, but because the slice of humanity that it focuses on is a slice taken from the better rather than the worst of what we can be. Is this a lot to ask of a show that adapts stories about taking care of animals in a beautiful setting in 1930s England? Maybe. But for all its simplicity, it has a real and resonant core, in that the drama comes not from external and fanciful circumstances, but from the day-to-day matters of family and work.
The family here is Herriot, the two Farnons, and Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), who takes care of Siegfried's house, where they all live and where the veterinary practice is located. The first season, which consists of six episodes and the beloved traditional Christmas episode (an idea the UK embraces and American television usually doesn't, to its detriment), establishes this family with its loving but complicated relationships. The stories are focused as much on mentoring and teaching and caring for people—and the drama and comedy that naturally follow—as so many shows are on harming and forgiving and enabling people. There is something to be said for the realism of television that reminds us uncannily of our worst and most toxic relationships; this is television meant to remind us of the contours of our best ones.