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Jim McDermottJanuary 21, 2022
Jenny Alderson (Imogen Clawson), Scruff, Jenny’s dog, and James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) in “All Things Great and Small” (photo: Playground Television Ltd.)Jenny Alderson (Imogen Clawson), Scruff, Jenny’s dog, and James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) in “All Things Great and Small” (photo: Playground Television Ltd.)

Has a new show been more perfectly timed than the reboot of the BBC classic series “All Creatures Great and Small”? Just as our struggle to maintain hope and sanity was reaching its peak in January of last year, we were invited to take a drive among the gently rolling hills and farms of 1930s Yorkshire and watch the winningly handsome young veterinarian James Herriot tend to dogs with soulful eyes and birth lambs in a sleeveless tee.

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, all at once, the vacation we each yearned for, the sexy savior medical worker fantasies we were already entertaining, and the trip to Petco we needed to make. Again, what could have been more perfect?

But if I’m being honest, there was something about that first season that didn’t sit right with me. The actors were great and the natural beauty of the land and the animals a welcome relief. But it never seemed to have all that much going on. 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.

Season 2 began a few weeks ago on PBS, and with it has come a clearer sense of the trouble I have with the show. On the one hand, “All Creatures” really is like taking the vacation that reality has refused to afford us. Every episode is a journey into a world that has the simplicity and safety that we currently lack.

“All Creatures” really is like taking the vacation that reality has refused to afford us. But it is also deeply untrue to the world it supposedly represents.

But it is also deeply untrue to the world it supposedly 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.

The storytelling around the animals themselves is even more egregious.

The meat that most of us happily eat has always come at the cost of the lives of creatures that we profess to 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. Everywhere you look, it seems like Eden.

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 think about what they are there for. In real life, that same adorable little lamb who eventually finds a mother of his own might very well be shot in the head in a few months and eaten for Easter dinner. And while there might be a few tears shed in a farm family along the way, there would also be an understanding that this is how life works. But meat is not some yummy magic protein that the stork brings along with babies; it is the actual flesh of those same gorgeous and revelatory creatures over which we spend each episode cooing.

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 “humane” as a description of the act of taking care of other living beings on the way to killing and eating them?) But in our present-day reality, those very same beautiful beings on the way to becoming Happy Meals are living not in Eden but in stinking, overcrowded Hells we have created where they are overfed, caged and shackled.

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

The last thing I want to do is to take away any of the pop culture-Snuggies we have all needed to get us 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, will someone please 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. The meat that most of us happily eat has always come at the cost of the lives of creatures that we profess to love, maybe even more than we love our fellow human beings. 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 are actively participating in something that is clearly wrong, even objectively evil.

Given what we know about how farm animals are treated today, can you truly say you love animals and still agree to eat some of them? As a Catholic, can you be pro-life and still consume meat, or factory-farmed meat anyway? 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. Come sit close with a steeping cup of tea and look at this adorably somber Pekingese with the hilariously racist name of 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.

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