'The Bletchley Circle' Review: Travel Back In Time With A Bunch of Smart London Ladies

An Unappreciated Gem Returns

Sunday evening will see the return of a well-made period drama that features resourceful women in search of personal and professional satisfaction, a palpable sense of time and place, and to-die-for retro coats and handbags.

Surprise, it's not "Mad Men"!

Of course, "Mad Men," which also returns Sunday, has all those things plus Don Draper and the rest of the gang, but spare a thought -- and perhaps some time -- for the modest but satisfying PBS drama "The Bletchley Circle."

"The Bletchley Circle" reunites several women who had worked at a secret code-breaking installation, Bletchley Park, during World War 2, and puts them on the trail of crimes that others overlook or downplay. The U.K. mystery takes place in the early '50s, long before "Mad Men's" Swinging Sixties, but there is some overlap between the shows.

It's not as ambitious as "Mad Men," of course, but it has its own very real pleasures. "The Bletchley Circle" offers commentary on the frustrations these women face in the workplace and at home, as they try -- and sometimes fail -- to live inside the narrow confines that society has deemed appropriate for women at that time.

These women, whose brains and dedication helped win the war, have been asked to put their intellects on hold, and it isn't easy, not that they'd let it show. With circumspect restraint, however, "The Bletchley Circle" communicates that it's certainly a letdown for them to be judged not by their ability to spot patterns and break ciphers but by their typing speed. Yet in true stiff-upper-lip fashion, they find time to persevere at the things that matter to them, and when they're not working as librarians, mothers or secretaries, they investigate murders and the inner workings of London's shadiest gangs.

The two cases the women come across in this four-episode season allow them to stretch their curiosities and their intellects and reinforce their friendships along the way. Their pursuit of these cases also puts them in danger at times, which makes things difficult for Susan (the wonderful Anna Maxwell Martin), whose encounter with a murderer last season left her traumatized.

Against her better judgment, Susan soldiers on, even as her secret work -- in the past and in the present -- drives a wedge between her and her husband. Martin makes every line count, but she's even better when Susan is not speaking; her repression and bubbling irritation are subtly but distinctly conveyed. Underneath all the conflicts inside her is a strong emotional commitment to justice and fairness, the ideas that ultimately unite the Bletchley women.

Not every character in the cast makes an impression and some male characters are particularly thin, but the men have more nuance than they did in the first season, which went a bit too far in depicting men as almost uniformly dismissive or condescending. That didactic quality is gone this season, which is good, but there's also a bit less of a focus on the mechanics of code breaking in the first half of the season, which is a mild disappointment but not an insurmountable flaw.

The first two episodes concern a case of false imprisonment and bring a new cast member into the fold, and the last half of the season gives cast member Rachael Stirling a welcome opportunity to shine.

Stirling plays Millie, who could could be a British cousin of "Mad Men's" Joan Harris. Even when her life is falling apart, Millie always wears a smile and a slash of red lipstick and finds a way to persevere. No one is likely to overlook her -- she's too vivacious for that -- but she's well aware that people tend to underestimate her, but they do so at their peril. Stirling does a fine job of showing Millie's vulnerable and determined side as the second season enters its homes stretch.

"The Bletchley Circle" stays within a fairly narrow tonal and emotional range, which feels appropriate for a drama set in post-war Britain, where many goods were still rationed and people were used to doing without. That said, the show's production designers and costume folks do a fine job of doing the era justice, visually speaking, and "Bletchley Circle's depiction of bustling mid-century London made me want to borrow the TARDIS so I could visit it.

This unassuming show finds a way to turn many of its limitations into virtues, and it's not hard to end up thinking of the Bletchley women as very British badasses. "The Bletchley Circle" is one of those shows on the margins that reminds me that modesty and quiet determination are fine qualities in a TV show. And in a lady detective.

"The Bletchley Circle" returns Sunday on PBS. Check local listings for times.

Ryan McGee and I discussed "Mad Men," "The Bletchley Circle" and the challenges of series finales in the most recent Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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