PBS' 'Mercy Street': Cast, Producers Talk "Timely" Civil War Drama

"The conversations that are going on with the characters in our show are still conversations that are going on in our country now," said exec producer David Zabel.
Courtesy of PBS
'Mercy Street'

When PBS' flagship series Downton Abbey bids farewell early 2016, it'll hand off the baton to Mercy Street.

The six-part miniseries tells the story of the Civil War from the vantage point of doctors and volunteer nurses. The series marks the network's first American drama in more than a decade. It hails from Ridley Scott and David W. Zucker (The Good Wife) of Scott Free Productions, and Lisa Q. Wolfinger (Desperate Crossing) and David Zabel (ER).

The ensemble cast, which includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead (The Returned), Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), Gary Cole (Veep), Norbert Leo Butz (Bloodline), McKinley Belcher III (Show Me a Hero), Jack Falahee (How to Get Away with Murder), AnnaSophia Robb (The Carrie Diaries) and newcomer Hannah James, were all on hand Saturday at the Television Critics Association press tour to discuss the series, along with executive producers Wolfinger, Zabel and Zucker.

The producers described the miniseries as part medical drama, part family saga. "It's much less procedural than The Knick," explained Zabel on stage. "It has a lot more elements going on in it even though the nexus of it is the hospital. … It's not a dark medical show."

The drama follows the lives of two volunteer nurses on opposing sides of the war — New England abolitionist Mary Phinney (Winstead) and Confederate supporter Emma Green (James) — and is inspired by memoirs and letters from real doctors and nurses from that time. It takes place in a luxury hotel-turned-hospital in Alexandria, Va. — the longest occupied Confederate town during the war — and explores those struggling to save lives while managing their own hardships. (Wolfinger pointed out that about three-quarters of the characters are based on real-life people, though not necessarily iconic figures.)

When asked about current discussion in the United States surrounding the Confederate flag and its implication, Zabel responded that he thinks the show, which was shot in Richmond and Petersburg, is especially fitting for American audiences right now: “That whole conversation that’s happening in the country only makes the story that we’re telling more pertinent, more timely and more illuminating.”

He added: "It only reinforces how important this moment in American history was and continues to be. … These conversations that are going on with the characters in our show are still conversations that are going on in our country now." Wolfinger agreed, noting that the show "offers context" to the current cultural conversations.

Cole, who plays the patriarch of the Green family and one of the richest men in the city, found his character to be caught in a moral dilemma that still carries significance today. "What’s interesting to me is this conflict he’s caught in — he’s really entrenched in these attitudes and beliefs, and I think that carries over to sections of the South since the war ended," he said, adding: "There’s attitudes that didn’t go away."

Mercy Street premieres Sunday, Jan. 17 on PBS.

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