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.
As played by Ralph, who gets the rarely-seen “introducing” credit, James Herriot is a nervous but committed young vet who leaves home and family in Glasgow to take one of the few vet jobs that’s open now that the world is turning from horses to cars: the Yorkshire practice of Siegfried Farnon. Siegfried sees cows and bulls, working horses and racehorses, sheep and goats, cats and dogs, and birds and ferrets. He is the vet in Darrowby, and they’re all his responsibility — especially since he tends to toss his assistants in short order. He’s haughty but also dryly funny, and Mrs. Hall’s obvious fondness for him, while it calls to mind a lot of other housekeeper-homeowner relationships of fiction, helps to humanize him. Shortly after James arrives, Siegfried’s ne’er-do-well brother Tristan blows back into town after failing his vet school exams. Siegfried practically raised Tristan from adolescence, so this sets up a dynamic in which if you squint, Siegfried and Mrs. Hall (whose name is Audrey, it will turn out) are the parents, and James and Tristan are the sons: the older one responsible and shy, the younger one brash and charming and prone to screwing up.
So really, what unfolds is a chosen-family story, with dashes of cute dogs and pregnant cows and an underlying recognition that animals, for many residents of Darrowby, are the most important property they own as well as revered living creatures. The reason a vet in Yorkshire is such a rich well of stories is not only because animals are interesting or they get a lot of weird diseases. It’s because in a farming community, animals are adjacent to wealth, to power, to business, to sport, to families, to children, to making a living. They are adjacent to everything important, so vets know the rich and the poor, the honest and the dishonest. Siegfried’s practice is everything to this community. In fact, one of the best episodes finds James doing his first turn as the vet at the local fair, measuring ponies and judging the pet contest, and it reminded me a pinch — just a pinch — of the episode of Schitt’s Creek where the family winds up dancing in the barn. It is about what it means to be joined to a community, with all its joys and frustrations.
There are, unsurprisingly, women other than Audrey who come into the lives of the three men. The only one it seems sporting to discuss is Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton), who lives on one of the farms Herriot visits. Helen is independent and capable (at most things), but also funny and observant, and she seems a bit fascinated by the new vet’s assistant.
PBS will be running these episodes once a week through the rest of January and February (and making them available on demand), and when you reach the end, there is another sigh, just like the one that comes with the first view of the rolling hills. It’s the satisfaction of a well-designed first season of what I hope will be a long run. Particularly at a time when rest is important and exhaling is important, perhaps a beautiful setting, some fine performances and a high regard for what happens inside a home between people who care for each other will be just what the (ahem) doctor ordered.