“Breathless,” a new three-part installment of PBS’s “Masterpiece Mystery,” shares a few things in common with “Mad Men.” Both shows are set in the 1960s, both are meticulously art-directed, and both feature dapper but mysterious leading men — in the case of “Breathless,” he’s Jack Davenport’s Dr. Otto Powell. Both shows invite us to revel in what has changed, culturally and technologically, and to cringe at what has remained stubbornly embedded in our collective nature across the decades, most notably sexism.
But “Breathless” isn’t nearly as sensitive or psychologically rich as “Mad Men,” so don’t let the superficial similarities raise your expectations too high. “Breathless,” which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., is an attractive soap opera about Otto, his colleagues in the gynecology department at a London hospital, and their spouses and relatives. It’s engaging enough, and the story lines, including Powell’s secret abortion practice and a patient’s unexplained terror about her impending marriage, are diverting. If you enjoy attractive period melodrama, there’s probably something here for you.
But the series doesn’t dig into its characters’ psyches very deeply at all. The characters all fit nicely into their situations and plotlines, but show creators Paul Unwin and Peter Grimsdale don’t give any of them much dimension. You don’t wonder about these people’s motivations, as you do on “Mad Men” or “Masters of Sex,” another period medical drama; they all seem like unembellished types. They adeptly enact familiar stories of the time — a young woman asks for birth control pills, an older woman’s depression gets dismissed as menopause — but without evoking much of an emotional connection in us.
Davenport is likable, if not particularly charismatic, as the good doctor. Otto is arrogant — what TV surgeon isn’t? — but I sense that we’re supposed to forgive him because he is so much more talented than his colleagues. He is married and has an adoring preteen son, but his relationship with his melancholy wife, Elizabeth (Natasha Little), is laden with unarticulated dissatisfaction. There’s something dark lurking in their past that will surely emerge across the three episodes.
Otto finds himself drawn to a new nurse at the hospital, Angela Wilson (Catherine Steadman), whom he takes along with him on a secret abortion at the home of a wealthy woman (who tells him, “I’ve been such a silly muffin”). The married Angela isn’t interested in Otto, it seems, but that doesn’t stop him from hitting on her repeatedly. (Unless the original has been edited to fit the PBS format, which happens too often, the script doesn’t build Otto’s affection for Angela with nearly enough subtlety and believability.) I’m betting the pair will fall in love, since most of the plots seem headed in familiar directions, but perhaps later episodes will offer surprises.
One of the stars of “Breathless” is the pristine production design. The homes and kitchens are exquisite, and so are the costumes. Zoe Boyle plays a flame-haired former nurse engaged to one of Otto’s colleagues, and, like Christina Hendricks on “Mad Men,” she always seems to be wearing a stunning and tight red or turquoise dress. Nothing appears to be particularly lived-in, but the look of “Breathless” is nonetheless breathtaking. That’s very good news for a story that tends to linger on the surface.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.