PBS’s ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ is lovely to watch — and deeply untrue

Has a new show been more perfectly timed than the reboot of the BBC classic series “All Creatures Great and Small”? Just as hope and sanity were at its lowest point in January 2013, we were invited to go on a drive in the gently rolling hills of 1930s Yorkshire to see James Herriot, a young veterinarian, care for dogs with soulful eyes. He also tends to birth lambs wearing a sleeveless shirt.

While questions of viruses and vaccines and the possibility of dying hung over everything in our lives, the biggest challenges faced by most of the show’s characters was animal husbandry and whether to share the feelings they had for each other. And everything was colored by lovely golden hues, as though everyone were standing before a sunset—or trapped in amber.

Truly, at times watching “All Creatures Great and Small” is like visiting Disneyland and thinking Anaheim is amazing when three blocks away families are living in their cars.

It was the vacation we all longed for, the fantasies of a savior doctor we were already entertaining, as well as the Petco trip we had to take. What could have been better?

But if I’m being honest, there was something about that first season that didn’t sit right with me. The acting was great, and the natural beauty and kindness of the animals and land were a welcome respite. However, it didn’t seem like there was much to do. It was like “Downton Abbey,” but without any of the characters or conflict that made that other show interesting. At some points it almost seemed like the show’s actual goal was to help us fall asleep.

PBS aired Season 2 a few weeks ago and I am now more aware of the problems with the show. On the one hand, “All Creatures” really is like taking the vacation that reality has refused to afford us. Each episode takes us on a journey to a world with the safety and simplicity we lack.

“All Creatures” really is like taking the vacation that reality has refused to afford us. However, it is not true to the entire world it supposedly represents.

It is, however, completely untrued to the world it represents. While the wonderful fictionalized memoirs of James Alfred Wight (writing as James Herriot) that inspired the series don’t hesitate to show the struggles as well as the graces of rural life in 1930s Yorkshire, the show itself offers little acknowledgement of the hardships of the Great Depression.

Jim is thinking about moving back to Glasgow because his parents can’t find work, and that’s about as far as those problems go. At home the veterinarians wear their natty three-piece suits and buy raffle tickets to dances without a single moment’s concern about finances. If they can’t have some things, it’s because the head of practice Siegfried Farnon is cheap, not because the farmers his clinic serves have reached such desperate states they can no longer afford to pay.

Truly, at times watching “All Creatures Great and Small” is like visiting Disneyland and thinking Anaheim is amazing when three blocks away families are living in their cars.

Even worse is the storytelling surrounding animals.

Most of us happily eat meat, but it has always been at the expense of the lives and well-being of animals we love.

It’s true, watching a lamb lick the cheek of its owner and wander around searching for a ewe that will let it nurse is sure to crack even the stoniest of hearts. It’s like Eden from every angle.

But though the show likes to present the eponymous “creatures” as though they are really just pets, it’s hard to watch scenes with farm animals and not ever think about what they are there for. In real life, the same adorable little lamb might end up being shot in his head after finding a mother. There might be some tears in the farm family, but there would also be an understanding of how this is life. Meat isn’t some magical protein that the stork brings with his babies, it is the flesh of the same beautiful and revelatory creatures we enjoy each episode giggling over.

In this soft-focus fantasy of the past, the animals we see might be treated “humanely” until their executions. (Is it an oxymoron, a paradox or completely fitting to use the word “human” as a description of the act of taking care of other living beings on the way to killing and eating them?) In our current reality, these same beautiful beings who are on their way to Happy Meals live not in Eden but in the present. Stinking, Hells overcrowdedWe have made them overfed, caged, and shackled.

Will someone just say something, seriously? Anything? Could Mrs. Hall’s son finally write her back, at least?

I don’t want to lose any of the pop-culture-Snuggies that have helped us get through this difficult time. I would probably be on board with “All Creatures” if its plot had more to offer than endless sequences of characters casting searching looks of love or concern at one another. Seriously, can someone just say something? Anything? Could Mrs. Hall’s son finally write her back, at least?

I am also not some crypto-vegan who set out to write about “All Creatures” in order to be able to proclaim to you “Meat is murder.” I just find that the series’ subject matter begs questions that are not easily ignored. We eat the meat we enjoy eating, even though we may love them more than our fellow humans. And in our world today, where that “cost” effectively includes the mass torture of animals from the moment of their birth until they die, the ethical problem for us is much more serious. We actively participate in something that is clearly wrong.

We know so much about the treatment of farm animals today that it is hard to believe you can love animals enough to agree to eat some.Can a Catholic be pro-life while still consuming meat or factor-farmed meat? Where do animals fit within Cardinal Bernardin’s famous seamless garment?

“All Creatures Great and Small” seems to say: Don’t you spend one more moment thinking about any of that hard stuff. Sit down with a cup of tea and take a look at this somber Pekingese who is known for his racially charged name Tricki Woo. It doesn’t matter what happens to this enormous pig after he leaves the scene, how your dinner gets to its plate or whether the people of 1930s Yorkshire actually did live in a Thomas Kinkade painting. Helen’s got on her pretty red dress and Jim looks like he might say something to her! Everything is fine.