It’s actually very difficult to write a review of All Creatures Great and Small Season 2, because everything I said in my initial review of the show remains true. Now, there’s just more of it: six episodes and a Christmas special, to be exact. And what a wonderful gift to chase away the winter doldrums once again as the Channel 5 series, airing in the US on PBS Masterpiece, returns us to a bucolic pre-war Yorkshire and the inhabitants of Skeldale House, the preeminent veterinary practice in the region. (Or so its lead surgeon, Samuel West’s Siegfried Farnon, likes to say—and it is most likely true.)
The series once again finds a way to capture the spirit—if not abide by the letter—of James Herriot’s books, giving us a wholesome and cozy setting that can nevertheless be emotionally intense when it comes to the hardships of farm life. It’s also never saccharine, though it can flirt with the overwrought as the music swells grandly when our young James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) drives through the countryside or gazes upon his little stone village. Then again, who among us would have a different reaction in such a setting? All Creatures knows we’re here to admire the best of rural 1930s England, and it relishes in it.
What is different about this second season is that All Creatures finds its characters, and the larger world, on the precipice of change. Those changes are largely two-fold, and the first is about the shifting face of veterinary work. When James goes home to Scotland for a family visit, he spends time at a forward-facing practice that has x-ray machines, nursing assistants, and a new focus on pets rather than farm animals; it’s cutting-edge. When he returns to Yorkshire the old tools, methods, and haphazard systems that rule Skeldale House leave him frustrated.
But James is also feeling the emotional pull of his parents, his mother especially, who are hoping he might stay with them permanently. Though helping out as best he can from afar, James knows his parents would benefit from him being there. While he highly respects Siegfried and has found a friend in Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) and a second mother in Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), the real anchor keeping James in Yorkshire is the confident and beautiful Helen (Rachel Shenton), with whom he is finally able to begin a sweet if stumbling romance.
Romance is really in the air in All Creatures Season 2, and while sometimes it can feel a little like the show doesn’t know what to do with these characters without giving them romantic interests, I will be the last to complain. Every furtive glance or longing look is a joy to behold, because that’s what All Creatures has done so successfully from the start: made us care deeply about each of our leads. And when they have misunderstandings or try to save their pride by covering up their mistakes (often poorly), the eventual relief of that tension is deeply satisfying.
One of the biggest tensions, in the regard, is the ongoing fib that Siegfried hastily constructed at the end of Season 1: that his younger brother Tristan had actually passed his veterinary exams, when in fact he failed again. Siegfried dancing around that and trying to protect both his brother and his practice only grows in awkwardness, serving as an interesting layer in the compelling sibling relationship that more often plays out like a father and son.
As All Creatures continues to expand upon the interpersonal relationships and dramas of the book series, its best addition is giving Mrs. H more to do. She is not left out of the potential dating game in this new season, and continues to be both an encourager and voice of reason that ties the entire series together. She knows all of the secrets of Skeldale House’s residents (and pushes for them to come to light), and yet, she has a few of her own. Uncovering more about her, and her own needs and desires when she spends so much time tending to others, has been one of the truest joys of these new episodes.
If there’s one thing the series might stand to do more of, it would be to further expand its supporting cast, and give us a deeper sense of the town in which James now lives (where is the resident busybody, after all?) The glimpses we get of local characters, both comedic and tragic, out on the farms are often a highlight—even though the real scene-stealers are always the animals. Not exactly adhering to Case of the Week model, All Creatures does make sure it never forgets why James is at Skeldale House in the first place. He’s a capable and caring vet, and storylines about the animals he looks after—and what they mean to their humans—are always the most affecting.
The bottom line is that, once again, All Creatures is a delight. It’s cozy and beautifully made. It’s a throwback that feels familiar, and yet doesn’t always play out exactly as expected. Yet even when it does, it’s charming enough to make each decision work. It’s not out to prove itself, make statements, or feel pressured to bring in dark storylines just to feel more modern. Like the indomitable Tricki Woo, it knows just what it’s about, and we love it for that.
All Creatures Great and Small premieres Sunday, January 9th on PBS Masterpiece.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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