Funny how some shows manage to meet us exactly where we are, regardless of when their stories are set. Season 4 of PBS Masterpiece’s “All Creatures Great and Small” opens in 1940, and at Easter, reminding Northern Hemisphere dwellers in 2024 that warmer days are ahead. Darrowby’s villagers are enjoying each other’s company when they’re beset by a small menace, a local boy determined to make mischief.
Its writers never pretend that the Dales folk have lives free of difficulties, positing instead that the way to overcome hard times is to pull together, which isn’t always easy.
James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) knows small creatures misbehave when they’re hurt but puts himself in harm’s way nevertheless – not for the boy, initially, but for his pet. Herriot and his boss Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West) have a knack for diagnosing illnesses in animals and healing the humans who care for them in the process.
“All Creatures Great and Small” thrives on gentle tension, not tragedy, it won’t ruin anyone’s enjoyment to say that it all works out. James figures out what ails the boy and helps him become a better person. Loneliness is what ails him, exacerbated by rejection. Being useful to and valued by others cures him. His road to betterment includes visits with dogs, a lamb and other adorable fauna. Life goes on, and peacetime in Yorkshire Dales continues apace.
But this is intentionally illusory, a kind way to ease viewers into grimmer realities. World War II has transformed all of Britain, and although the Dales are as serene as ever none can remain untouched by the conflict on the European continent.
Skeldale House’s close-knit family of choice is missing Siegfried’s brother Tristan who went off to war in Season 3, and James and Helen (Rachel Joy Shenton) struggle to find time for themselves now that the expanding practice has one fewer set of hands and many more small animal patients.
The usual problems, only with fewer creature comforts due to rationing. Even the resourceful and talented Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley) can only do so much to make poor ingredient substitutions taste the way things do in times of plenty.
All Creatures Great and Small (Playground Entertainment/Masterpiece PBS)“If it wasn’t for the ration box and the victory gardens, you’d have no idea there’s a war on,” cracks the Drovers Arms’ barmaid Maggie (Mollie Winnard) as she pours out a pint for her friends. But that’s not quite the case. The episode after finds James and Helen helping her father during lambing season as cuteness abounds, when their romantic break is interrupted for a moment by soldiers jogging down the road, rifles in hand.
More than a mere pandemic comfort, “All Creatures Great and Small” first debuted days after the January 6, 2021 insurrection, soothing our tensions with visions of broad emerald fields and simpler times that were never quite so. Its writers never pretend that the Dales folk have lives free of difficulties, positing instead that the way to overcome hard times is to pull together, which isn’t always easy. James gets his block knocked off trying to help someone Siegfried warns him is beyond help.
“All Creatures Great and Small” remains a solace as it reminds us that even in places greatly removed from battlefronts it was impossible to check out entirely.
Then again, that’s always Siegfried’s initial diagnosis before coming around to a more humane if not necessarily convenient alternative. But there is no circumventing the inevitabilities imposed by the war, no matter how far away Darrowby is from London and the front. Life goes on as usual with everyone knowing the demand the fight requires could change everything in broad ways and very intimate ones.
“All Creatures Great and Small” remains a solace as it reminds us that even in places greatly removed from battlefronts it was impossible to check out entirely. Many people seem to be doing that in 2024 as two major wars rage on, each with the potential to drastically reshape global politics and each hitting us at home.
It has never been easier for the average American to treat deadly conflicts like background noise. Unless a person has a direct stake in these conflicts or makes a conscious effort to stay up-to-date on their developments, distractions abound.
Many of our neighbors don’t have such luxury – they’re contending with Islamophobic and antisemitic threats and agonizing over their relatives’ and loved ones’ safety. Our part of the world strolls onward concerning itself with meager concerns with many griping over the rising energy costs without connecting that spiking expense to the war in Ukraine.
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Tallying the lives lost and other horrors people in war zones are experiencing every day would be crippling. All this, and we’ve entered a year expected to determine whether our democracy will remain intact.
Facing all these things makes the respite these seven new episodes offer feel all the more necessary and responsibly presented, offering relaxing weekly breaks that gently remind us that generations before us made it through extraordinarily anxious times while prioritizing life above all.
“If this war has taught us anything, it’s to grab onto the things you love and try to cherish every moment,” says Helen. That could be the hand of a loved one or the paw of a treasured pet – the Herriots and the rest of Skeldale House see no less value in either, or any life, a sentiment worth holding close in any uncertain time.
Season 4 of “All Creatures Great and Small” premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on PBS member stations. Check your local listings.
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