Set in 1961 London, the series Breathless opens intriguingly, as a handful of doctors and nurses discreetly visit a woman in her own residence to perform an illegal abortion. Cash is passed, and everything is done in the utmost discretion as all parties could be arrested if the act was discovered. We quickly learn that these medical folks are respected professionals from the gynecology ward of a London hospital, with the dashing doctor Otto Powell (Jack Davenport) and his right hand man, anesthesiologist Charlie Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall) at the fore.
Breathless breathlessly (or rather slowly, actually) follows, Mad-Men style, the work and home lives of the gynecology doctors and nurses of this one hospital, which means lots of affairs, secrets, and drama. The men of the era and class are clearly the power players, from Otto immediately setting his eyes on the new nurse Angela (Catherine Steadman) as a love interest, even though they are both married, and she says, “Now, wait… what?” The young doctor Richard (Oliver Chris), despite being newly married to Jean (Zoe Boyle), immediately doesn’t see that as a hindrance to continuing on his whoring ways. And, perhaps the most interesting, yet shallowly explored, is anesthesiologist Charlie (Dingwall) who is cripplingly dependent on Otto, both as a mentor and because of something dark and shared in their past.
There is a lot in this era that could, and should be interesting. For instance, there is an awkward scene where Jean, desperate to pretend like she has a successful marriage, invites all of her husband’s colleagues and wives over for dinner and drinks. Problem is, she can’t cook, is a drunk, and her husband shows up very late (because he is having an affair). This scene should have been ripe for character exploration and tension, but is wasted. And there is Nurse Angela, the most sympathetic character in the show, whose working-class home life with her father (suffering from dementia) contrasts greatly with the success and status of Otto, but we barely get to know anything about her back-story by the end of Series 1. We just know that instantly Angela is the romantic interest for Otto, though they have barely talked and there are no sparks.
Finally, throw in one of the more uncompelling “mysteries” on Masterpiece Mystery (who presented Breathless in the U.S.) involving a blackmailing detective (played by ubiquitous Iain Glen) and the oft-repeated cry of, “Cyprus!!!” and you have a surprisingly dull series. Considering the talent involved, the intruguing setting, and the era of the sexual revolution, Breathless could have, and should have been so much more.