TV review: PBS Masterpiece delights with winter double feature

Every time I discover a new show on PBS Masterpiece, I feel like a good friend has invited me over on a wintry evening to enjoy a cozy time chatting by the fireplace and drinking a cup of hot cocoa. 

Although a lot of attention these days is devoted to programming on the big-name streaming services, there’s plenty of delightful content to be found on good old-fashioned public television. PBS’s Masterpiece program has been running since the 1970s, bringing British dramas to U.S. viewers on Sunday nights (some of the most popular, more recent shows on Masterpiece include Sherlock and Downton Abbey).

This past week, Masterpiece aired the finale of the miniseries Around the World in 80 Days and the second season of All Creatures Great and Small, and I’m definitely going to miss having new episodes of these two shows to look forward to each week. 

Around the World in 80 Days is, of course, an adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic adventure novel about a British nobleman named Phileas Fogg who attempts to travel around the globe in 80 days. While I enjoy Jules Verne’s work in general, a major draw of this miniseries is the fact that it stars David Tennant, who played my favorite incarnation of the Doctor on Doctor Who

I’m not very good about remembering details from stories over time, so I can’t really comment on how much this new miniseries differs from the original novel (my forgetfulness really is a mixed blessing, because if I wait long enough, I can re-watch a movie and it seems new again). As it stands on its own, Around the World in 80 Days is great fun, though it did get off to a bit of a slow start. If it doesn’t hook you right away, that’s OK – just keep going, and it’s well worth your time. 

Tennant’s Fogg is not your stereotypical action hero; he’s lived a somewhat timid, sheltered life, and he’s not a very savvy adventurer (his journey around the world is filled with numerous mishaps). Yet for me, that was part of what made this show stand out. I enjoyed watching Fogg grow as a person throughout this series, finding his courage and sense of adventure, and forging deep friendships with his two traveling companions, his valet Jean Passepartout (Ibrahim Kom) and journalist Abigail Fix (Leonie Benesch).

Around the World in 80 Days is an entertaining period drama that both celebrates its historical time period while also acknowledging the inequalities and other issues of the day. It’s not afraid to show the flaws of its lead characters, which makes the characters feel more real and gives their eventual triumph an even greater emotional weight. 

While the story wraps up fairly neatly at the end, it’s open-ended enough that Fogg and Co. could return for other adventures, and I wouldn’t say no to that.

 All Creatures Great and Small is equally enjoyable, although a very different type of story from Around the World in 80 Days. Instead of a globe-trotting adventure, this series takes place in a veterinary clinic in a small town in Yorkshire, based on the famous writings of James Herriot (pen name of James Alfred Wight). 

I always feel happy and a little bit brighter after watching an episode of All Creatures Great and Small. I’ve really come to love all the characters, from Nicholas Ralph’s young, still-learning-the-ropes veterinarian James Herriot, to charming but trouble-making Tristan (Callum Woodhouse), and even grumpy and loveable Siegfried (Samuel West). 

As an animal lover, it’s interesting to see how veterinary practices have evolved since 1937, when this series is set, and it’s heartwarming to watch just how much these vets care about the animals they treat every day (and their patients’ owners too). 

I’ll be curious to see what happens in future seasons, especially since World War II is approaching and how that might impact all the characters.

All Creatures Great and Small is an excellent show to watch if you need a little cheering up and want to feel better about the world.

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