Arts & EntertainmentTelevision
Review

Secrets are perilous medicine in 'Breathless' on PBS

EntertainmentColumnTelevisionPBS (tv network)Joanna PageNatasha LittleMad Men (tv program)
A '60s OB-GYN flirts with nurses and with trouble in 'Breathless' on PBS' 'Masterpiece Mystery!'
On PBS' 'Breathless,' the dark side of the '60s emerges in sexism, repression and limited medical knowledge

For viewers who find "The Knick" too gory and "Masters of Sex" too graphic, the answer can be found, as answers so often are, on PBS' "Masterpiece."

There the three-part period medical drama "Breathless" addresses all the social/sexual repressions and technological limitations of the 1960s while throwing in a dash of soap and a hint of mystery. (It airs under the "Masterpiece Mystery!" banner, which seems a stretch but gives us a few short minutes with Alan Cumming, which is always fun.)

"Pirates of the Caribbean's" Jack Davenport stars as OB-GYN Otto Powell, who, between fabulous diagnoses and flawless surgeries, flirts with nurses and the "darker" side of medicine. (He performs then-illegal abortions on the side.)

Powell has another secret, of course, possibly more than one. His marriage to Elizabeth (Natasha Little), for one thing, seems constrained even by Brit standards. Then there's Chief Inspector Ronald Mulligan ("Game of Thrones' " Iain Glen), who arrives late in the first episode, brimming with bitterness and ill intent. Mulligan apparently knew Powell "back in Cyprus," where Powell and his perpetually agitated colleague Dr. Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall) served in the military together.

Meanwhile, the issues of the day are addressed and explored, along with the styles and social habits. Enderbury, a fine and believable mix of self-aggrandizement and self-loathing, finds himself competing with an Indian-English doctor for promotion. Nurse Jean Wilson (Zoe Boyle) is torn between joy over "catching" young Dr. Truscott (Oliver Chris) and the nagging suspicion that she has sold herself short.

She is being replaced at the hospital by her sister and fellow nurse Angela (Catherine Steadman), who quickly finds it necessary to keep the smitten Powell at arm's length while offering support to various female patients made miserable by their very clearly second-class citizenry.

With period pieces a dime a dozen these days, the past has become as familiar as the present, and it's impossible to watch "Breathless" without mentally footnoting shows like those mentioned above, as well as "Mad Men," "Call the Midwife" and "The Hour."

This is not necessarily a bad thing. As with those series, "Breathless" offers viewers a trip back through time, in which the glorious fashions and accouterments do battle with the grim realities of sexism, racism, repression and limited medical knowledge.

Davenport's Powell is chilly yet chivalrous, and the performances are universally solid; "Gavin and Stacey's" Joanna Page shines in particular as Enderbury's amiably giddy wife, Lilly. If "Breathless" isn't saying anything terribly new about the old days — Women had it tough! Secrets can ruin your life! — it is lyrical nonetheless, and some points do bear repeating.

----------------------------

'Masterpiece Mystery! Breathless'

Where: KOCE

When: 9 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
EntertainmentColumnTelevisionPBS (tv network)Joanna PageNatasha LittleMad Men (tv program)
  • Simon Pegg finds happiness
    Simon Pegg finds happiness

    At 44, Simon Pegg thinks he's finally found happiness. The "Star Trek" and "Mission: Impossible" actor has that particular achievement on his mind recently, thanks to his new film, "Hector and the Search for Happiness." The quest film, which opens Sept. 19 and...

  • 'This Is Where I Leave You' is a dramatic turn for Bateman, Levy
    'This Is Where I Leave You' is a dramatic turn for Bateman, Levy

    Between the two of them, actor Jason Bateman and director Shawn Levy have made more than 30 film comedies. So when it came time to shoot one of several dramatic scenes in their new movie, "This Is Where I Leave You," they felt far from sure-footed.

  • 'Sesame Street' and the number of the day: 45 years on TV
    'Sesame Street' and the number of the day: 45 years on TV

    Calling "Sesame Street" children's programming is like calling "Saturday Night Live" a sketch comedy show or "The Simpsons" a cartoon. Technically it may be accurate, but the label fails to grasp its wide and powerful reach in pop culture.

  • Camerata Pacifica introduces John Harbison's curvy string trio
    Camerata Pacifica introduces John Harbison's curvy string trio

    Tuesday night, entering the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, it was out of the oven — the temperature still in the upper 90s at 8 p.m. — and into John Harbison's frying pan for the premiere of his String Trio, commissioned by Camerata Pacifica to open the Santa Barbara-based...

  • From narco-wars to urban basketball, making art out of activism
    From narco-wars to urban basketball, making art out of activism

    In 1996, L.A. artist Suzanne Lacy gathered together two teams of players in Oakland for a very unusual basketball game. Part performance art, part social activism, "No Blood/No Foul" brought together a team of cops and a team of Oakland youth for a lightning-paced game of street...

  • Blake Mills weighs in with new album 'Heigh Ho'
    Blake Mills weighs in with new album 'Heigh Ho'

    As an in-demand session guitarist who's appeared on records by stars like Neil Diamond and Pink, Blake Mills has worked in some of the most prestigious recording studios in Los Angeles. Yet to lay down vocals for his striking new solo album, the 27-year-old made use of a different...

Comments
Loading