TV Review: ‘Breathless’

Doctors and nurses have been engaged in soapy doings since broadcasting’s infancy, but seldom in a package quite as tantalizing as “Breathless.” Set in the early ‘60s, this three-part “Masterpiece” production obviously shares certain qualities with “Mad Men,” but quickly establishes its own spin on the era replete with a web of interlocking relationships. Built around a dashing gynecologist who performs illegal abortions, the project feels timely and provocative, but can just as easily be savored strictly for its “Peyton Place”-like attributes. For those needing a fix of sumptuous British period drama until “Downton Abbey” docks, “Breathless” is a breath of fresh air.

The producers won half the battle by casting Jack Davenport (closer to “Swingtown,” happily, than his “Smash” ordeal) as Dr. Otto Powell, who appears to saunter through life with nary a care despite breaking the law to assist women with terminating unwanted pregnancies. Assured and self-confident, he’s accompanied on these surreptitious missions by a nervous anesthesiologist (Shaun Dingwall) and a beautiful nurse, Jean (Zoe Boyle), who, as luck would have it, is pregnant herself, prodding the aristocratic doctor (Oliver Chris) who’s responsible to marry her.

For Jean, though, the seemingly golden ticket from nurse to doctor’s wife turns out to be gilded in tin. At the same time, she passes the on-the-side work to her newly arrived sister, Angela (Catherine Steadman), to whom Powell is instantly, almost palpably drawn. Powell’s wife (Natasha Little), meanwhile, is paid a visit by a fidgety police inspector (“Game of Thrones’” Iain Glen) with blackmail, among other things, on his mind.

Paul Unwin, who wrote all three parts (collaborating on two of them) and directed the premiere, has stitched an awful lot into these three 90-minute chapters: Class distinctions, infidelity, a central mystery regarding the Powells’ past and the dangers associated with abortion being forced underground. Reminded his work is illegal, Powell says the law “makes miserable lives and miserable women.”

Like “Mad Men,” there’s little nostalgia here for the good ol’ days, even if Anne Dudley’s bluesy, evocative score and settings like a jazz club where they play the “Peter Gunn” theme sort of makes one long to visit. Because it’s also a time when a doctor whose wife is unhappy because he’s betrayed her can cajole a colleague to medicate her so she’ll be more docile. (A woman who begins experimenting with the birth control pill notes the freedom will let her “be like a bloke, I suppose.”)

Throw in a splendid cast – including Sarah Parish, who shows up near the end of the first night – and “Breathless” is a pretty near flawless condensation of soap-opera conventions into a delicious little package. The only conspicuous misstep, in fact, is its rather nondescript title. Because when a story is crafted as meticulously as this one, the temptation is to breathe in every last bit of it.

TV Review: 'Breathless'

(Miniseries; PBS, Sun. Aug. 24, 9 p.m.)


Filmed in the U.K. by ITV Studios and Masterpiece.


Executive producers, Kate Bartlett, Paul Unwin, Rebecca Eaton; producer, Jolyon Symonds; directors, Unwin, Marek Losey, Philippa Langdale; writers, Unwin, Peter Grimsdale, Simon Tyrrell; camera, Tim Palmer; production designer, Matt Gant; editor, Mike Jones; music, Anne Dudley; casting, Susie Parriss. 4 ½ HOURS


Jack Davenport, Zoe Boyle, Catherine Steadman, Iain Glen, Natasha Little, Oliver Chris, Joanna Page, Shaun Dingwall, Ronny Jhutti, Sarah Parish

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  1. Roy Barnacle says:

    What is it with Masterpiece offerings that have to have sappy and distracting music that distracts from thee script and acting.In Breathless is indeed, soapy, But the background orchestras are definitely not needed.

  2. David Karner says:

    This show feels very much like it’s trying to cash in on the MadMen craze, and, like similar attempts to ride that band wagon, the fashion is very nice, but the storyline is just plain dull and the plotlines often nonsensical. Have to agree with others that this is certainly not one of Masterpiece’s best. It just feels like a bad soap opera.



  4. Deb says:

    I want this show back ….. SO BAD ! Love, LOVED, LOVE IT !

  5. Really want it to return! Will it?

  6. margaret mcree says:

    Will Breathless series continue. If do, when?

  7. Dr. Philip Wolfson says:

    Entertaining to the point where loose ends and improbables became impossible to ignore: 1) No follow-up to Inspector Mulligan’s (accidental?) and only presumed murder by the anesthesiologist–which by the way seemed contrived. 2) Insufficient foreshadowing of Angela’s return to her original mate (a shocking surprise given her obvious and growing attachment to Powell). 3) unconvincing sexual surrender of Powell’s wife to the blackmailer as were her reasons for failing to tell Powell about her plight initially, 3) the reasons for Angela and her sister keeping their sibling relationship secret were not clear or convincing. 4) Why the anesthesiologist lived so poorly compared to Powel and the other docs is a mystery unless under the UK’s health system his specialty was paid somehow less than ordiinary docs which is hard to believe since his is a specialty along with surgery requiring additional residency and training, 5) In general, main characters enmeshed to the point of soap-opera absurdity,etc., etc., etc.

  8. Kay Aby says:

    I love this miniseries except for the ending. I was hoping to see Dr. Powell and nurse Angela’s romance blossom. If there’s the second season, it should include their undeniable attraction and passionate romance, and of course, the marriage and children???!!!! Oh my goodness…

  9. Mariah Q says:

    The very thing that everyone is howling about is what made me appreciate this program. Maybe they were planning on a second season to tie up loose ends, but the reality of life is that it usually drags on without nice neat conclusions. I can take this series as it is and accept the fact that nothing is going to turn out fine because I see restless, breathless people all around me every day. The title, “Breathless,” to me indicates the thwarted lives and emotional suffocation of the characters. Like having a plastic bag over your head, and the air slowly sucked out as you realize you’re barely breathing anymore. So Otto remains stuck, punished for his secret crimes by the loss of Angela, guilty duty to Elizabeth and children that aren’t his. Angela remains stuck with her husband most likely always to keep the secret of loving Otto slowly eating away at her. And Lily continues stuck in a life unfulfilled, only half knowing and unwilling to face the secrets that are keeping her that way. The only ones who have a chance at real happiness are Jean and her wandering husband Richard, who have looked their problems in the face, learned lessons, forgiven each other for their lies and decided to move past them. Altogether, a terrific miniseries.

    • Kay Aby says:

      Agreed :-) I hope we can see the second season??!!!

    • clemie Eckert says:

      Agree with Mariah-this show is so true to the 60’s also!!

    • clemie Eckert says:

      Been watching this as re-runs on PBS-can’t believe it was cancelled. Such good acting and story line is pretty good. They don’t come any better than Jack Davenport. Maybe Netflix will pick it up. So much junk on TV these days and this one was no way deserves to be cancelled.

  10. Marci says:

    I loved this series and am so sad to hear that it was cancelled! I loved how beautifully it was shot and the time period is so interesting. Loved every thing about it. Hoping they can revive it!

  11. Ana milligan says:

    Well breathless be coming back for a second season? I love the show.

  12. Beverly Stafford says:

    The series finale had to be one of the worst endings to any mini series ever. So many loose ends that one would expect a second season. A real waste of time. This was Masterpiece at its lowest ebb. If this is the best that Masterpiece can do, it should just rerun old series or hire better writers. Alistair Cooke must be rolling over in his grave.

  13. CF says:

    Horrendous story from start to finish. Who has any clue what is going on? Who cares once they find out? Who likes any of these characters. Worst waste of my time ever. Way below par for Masterpiece.

  14. anita lowe says:

    Aw, please! Don’t cancel Breathless.

  15. Nora says:

    Will there be more episodes, please?

  16. John /Ann Wenman says:

    We have never enjoyed a Masterpiece Mystery MORE than “Breathless”—superb story-lines, sets, and acting [and we’ve been watching, and supporting, for decades.] PLEASE do a 2nd series to tie up all the loose ends! [as long as Otto and Angela can FINALLY be together.] Don’t leave your audience dangling with incomplete conclusions……that would be a disastrous “first” for Masterpiece’s hitherto unblemished record of excellence. No author leaves a script only half-written, and the public unsatisfied!!

  17. Susan Tillman says:

    Brilliant, abolutely brilliant until the ending! Are you mad! Must have another season and make it right for Otto Powell and his true love!

  18. Ron says:

    Watched all 3 episodes back to back. Was great until the end and then felt like I wasted my time.

  19. Jotika Mendenhall says:

    Loved this show but the ending is something else. Perhaps there needs to be another few episodes to conclude all loose ends. I was left wanting more…. Lovely show!

  20. James Watt says:

    Great show, rotten ending. What was the writer thinking. What happened to the Chief Inspector’s body? And the sudden arrival of the ‘lost’ husband right before the crucial meeting!? Way too many loose ends with nary an explanation. Could it be that an episode has been lost somehow?

  21. Deborah says:

    And now they have cancelled a second season. Truly, they didn’t give it a chance. It is obviously easier for them to keep retreading the same old chestnuts. Blast and damnation!

  22. Robin Larkson says:

    Loved the new series Breathless series! Its up there with Downtown Abbey only more intriguing. Please don’t leave us hanging with the tantalizing cliffhangers.

    Waiting Breathless

  23. Sharee says:

    I love this series, bought the DVD after first two shows because I couldn’t wait another week! Only to find out when DVD arrived that there was only one more show – can’t describe the disappointment. Please, more episodes! Love the characters, the stories, the historical background.

  24. Rosalind Bloomfield says:

    Breathless should have had another couple of episodes (at least). Viewers like me would love to see if Angela & Otto get together, what happens to Elizabeth, how does the murder of Mulligan pan out, etc. It left me hanging and I could not believe Breathless had only 3 episodes.

  25. Colleen says:

    I am upset that Breathless has been cancelled. The story was sharp and really good acting

  26. Lois Landis Kurowski, Fairfax, VA says:

    Sorry, folks, “Breathless” got cancelled after just the first 3 episodes! The actress who played Jean Truscott gave an interview in January saying the show was dead, altho she had a lot of fun making it. So disappointing! I was looking forward to the next series, in which we would perhaps have discovered what happened to Mulligan’s body! Lady Fairfax

  27. Brenda says:

    Really enjoyed this series and hope to hear soon that there will be a second season….too much left unresolved!

  28. Judi Jecker says:

    Great series. I only hope that we will see more of this. Exceptional acting! Thank you for quality programming.

  29. Deanna says:

    I really liked this series! My only complaint is that it is only 3 episodes long. It is like a soap opera but that is one of the things that make this show so entertaining. I really hope we get a Season 2.

  30. Lucy says:

    I lived in England in the sxties, not quite how I remember it! But then again I was born into a blue collar family. I did enjoy the series however, quite surprised at the ending. Karma for everyone!

  31. Cathi Banks says:

    Will there be any more episodes or is that it?

  32. Patrice says:

    What a disapointing ending!
    Mrs. Powell wants to keep her baby, the result of a rape???
    And go live on “happily” in a loveless marriage, built on guilt?

    • Jack Garnett says:

      And Mr. Powell, apparently an eunuch living with a beautiful woman for 9 years…”I have never even kissed her” finally finds balls enough to fall in love…at basically less than first sight…and then apparently resigns himself to another 9 years of fatherhood with the rapists child after glimpsing someone we guess that he guesses husband that his nurse told him about several times…just because he is such a wonderful reformed DUI accident perpetrator. Just the perfect ending to a continuously silly and poorly constructed series of unrealistic vignettes that should be an embarrassment to PBS, and especially to MYSTER Y. Maybe that”s the real mystery of it all.

      • Clive says:

        Agree completely. How this stupid soap opera ran under the Masterpiece Mystery banner completely eludes me.

  33. Norm Kantor says:

    What a terrible mess of an ending! So many loose ends! What happened to Mulligan’s body? The cop doesn’t bother to look in the drawer of the boat for any information which, of course, would disclose the files about Mr. Powell ? Charlie has to live with the fact that he’s killed a man? Mrs. Powell’s plan is to not have an abortion but carry Mulligan’s baby and she and Mr. Powell will go to the seashore and live happily ever after? Not with the dismay evident on Mr. Powell’s face. Angel’s husband appears from nowhere? So Angela and Mr. Powell who clearly love each other are doomed to never be together? Again, what a disappointing, terrible mess of an ending.

    • MJ says:

      Norm Kantor gets it right except he neglected to mention a couple other loose ends: What happens to Lily and Charlie Enderbury after he comes home calling out “dearest” and she’s not there? Won’t Joe have to face being AWOL and leave Angela again? An avid PBS fan, I found show’s ending unsatisfying to say the least. There should have been a way to wrap up the loose ends.

  34. Bongette says:

    I had to check to make sure that there were only 3 episodes, the ending was very disappointing, it left you hanging in the air, with a dozen questions. Was this the intent? Anyway I have made my own endings up for everyone and I am happy.
    Mulligan will be found in the canal in the same spot his son died – it will be ruled a suicide because he is so full of sadness and grief over the death of his son.

    Mrs. Powell will convince Dr. Powell that things really can work out between them even if it is nasty old Mulligans baby she is carrying, after all he owes here as he is responsible for the death of her Fiance. However she will miscarriage and lose the baby. Dr. Powell will come to the realization that he can no longer live his life being emotionally blackmailed by Mrs. Powell and will end his farce of a marriage.

    Jeannie will have a houseful of children and live a happy ever after life with her husband.

    Angela and her husband will leave the area but will eventually break up, he will leave her because he knows that she is and will always be in love with Dr. Powell. Plus the stress of being in an interracial marriage does not help.

    Jump ahead a few years: Angela is walking in the town and bumps into non other than but Dr. Powell. Sparks will fly between them, they will confess their undying love for each other and they will ride into the sunset …………..The End.

    • Yvonne Lashford says:

      I just watched the last episode tonight – only a year late in Australia! So disappointing but I like the way you have tied things up. What about the anaesthetist and Lily?

  35. Bonnie Tracy says:

    Oh no. Otto can not wind up with that crazy Elizabeth. What a disappointment.

  36. Ellen says:

    I was very disappointed by the way this series ended. Really weird – just bang! and it was over. So many loose ends- like how Angela’s husband suddenly appeared from nowhere and where did Mulligan’s body go? One of the worst Masterpiece Mystery’s ever.

  37. helen hanna says:

    i was a medical wife in california during the sixties and gave birth to two children during that era. jack davenport is exactly like my obgyn at the time…the same mannerisms, same swashbuckling good looks..contrary to the comments below, there was plenty of interaction between doctors and nurses on a romantic level during that era, but it was california, not britain. i thought the 3 part series was magnificent, so real, vivid and poignant..

  38. Lisa F. says:

    I fell in love with the miniseries Breathless. I am so sad to know that there are only 3 parts. I hope there will be a season 2.
    For those comments about not being realistic, I say, of course it’s not very realistic. It’s a show for entertainment. They certainly have entertained me.

  39. Where did the body of Mr. Mulligan disappear to? Or what did they want you to think happened?

  40. CeeGee4 says:

    There’s an old saying in writing mysteries that if there’s a gun on the mantlepiece in the first chapter, it better go off — problem here was, there was no gun but lot of subsequent gunshots that the audience was expected to figure out. A real hodge-podge of unrelated facts that never quite jelled, but that we were expected to accept out of the blue in the end. Was there any worse acting than Mrs.Powell standing with her arms outstretched for 15 minutes while Mulligan debated pulling the trigger? How about the appearance of Angela’s long lost husband who had been surreptitiously tracking her in the background for a few weeks? (Honey, I’m back from the front!) Oh, those soul-searching looks — is that method acting? And now, Mrs. Powell in a family way by One-Shot Mulligan?
    I think it was a wonderful way to end the series — makes as much sense as the rest of it — and I do hope there are no plans to continue. I heard it was written in pieces by totally unrelated people who sent in their contributions to be ‘stuck together’ — now I can believe that. What a disgrace! It should have appeared on Saturday Night Live/Dead.

  41. Dragon Queen says:

    What a horrible way to leave us – not noted anywhere that it was the finale for Season 1 and nowhere do we know when season 2 will be aired. This was not a good way to leave us.

  42. Kathy Vin says:

    Love this show–but ONLY 3 parts!! It left wanting more, and wondering —

  43. This seems to be a bunch of 30-somethings trying to imagine what the 60’s were like. Cliche after cliche, all I can say is that I was there, and the 60’s were populated by human beings, not cartoon figures. This is a truly awful show.

  44. RobC says:

    Intriguing and darkly original plot, let down by some miscasting and a surplus of cringeworthy, dithering women. Also a slight overabundance of English caricature-like “What-Oh, jolly good show chaps” vernacular. I did enjoy immensely however, the producers resisting the temptation to turn the series into a 60s nostalgia fest, replete with period music and culture, the omission allowing the viewer to focus on the narrative; although Anne Dudley’s score is somewhat overbearing and unnecessary at times. Best actor: Iain Glen as chillingly unstable Inspector Ronald Mulligan.

  45. Ferial says:

    The only possible outcome would have been for Otto to run off with the inspector. They were made for each other. All the women were confused dizzy-dame stereotypes,

  46. Mary says:

    I was mesmerized by this series. I almost gave up after the first episode, seemed like it was trying to ride on the coattails of “Mad Men” but the second got me hooked. Couldn’t wait for tonight’s episode, and I think I know now where the title came from — the last few minutes. Nothing was as it had seemed, and the villain turned out to be the lovely patrician wife. I was left breathless.

  47. Ron says:

    I wish there were several more episodes. Like mentioned, there were times I had trouble understanding the dialogue…some due to the music.

  48. Victoria says:

    What a terrible ending. What a pointless series.

  49. CeeGee4 says:

    Breathlessly awaiting decent dialogue, good acting, and a coherent plot. Not a pro-lifer, but I agree with every negative comment – this has to be the most confusing and ridiculous series ever. No likable characters, nothing really happens, a lot of intense, dramatic staring at the camera. Not much of a ‘statement’ on anything, as nothing is ever resolved. Not everything is green, SophieBird – some is putrid orange. The ‘highlight’ is Mrs. Powell in her bra, pointing north by northwest! Maybe she will fall in love with the police inspector and run away with him!
    Jacqui – you may have the right idea – a parody! But it doesn’t even resonate as a good one — anyone praising the storyline, fine editing etc. must be suffering from holding her/his breath for too long.

  50. SophieBird says:

    Is it me or is there an over abundance of green colored props in this tale? – everyone wearing green, green decor, etc?

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