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With its first originally produced scripted series since 2002, PBS invites viewers to debate which scenario is more precarious — seeking emergency medical treatment in the technological dark ages of the Civil War or attempting to make an accent-heavy period drama with a cast of American TV stars.
Fortunately, the answer is the former. Premiering on Sunday, Mercy Street milks ample drama from the terrifying prospect of facing even the most minor of procedures in an era in which anesthesia was considered unnecessary and the most scientific testing involved sniffing. While unable to push to quite the surgical extremes of Cinemax’s The Knick, Mercy Street delivers on gross-out medicine, tentatively soapy romance and and even occasionally nuanced history lessons and keeps the giggle-inducing performances to a relatively minimum. Six episodes was probably a less-than-ideal count for Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel’s drama, but the run concludes at a place that should take the show interesting places in a hypothetically better arced second season.
AIR DATE Jan 17, 2016
Mercy Street is set in Alexandria, Virginia’s Mansion House Hospital, a genteel inn retrofitted into an army infirmary under Union occupation in 1862. Almost entirely devoid of medical training, Marry Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is appointed new head nurse at Mansion House, threatening the rule of Florence Nightingale-trained nurse Anne Hastings (Tara Summers) and her doctor beau Byron Hale (Norbert Leo Butz), whose own control is being tested by Jed Foster (Josh Radnor), an forward-thinking doctor with European training.
Meanwhile, occupation isn’t necessarily pleasant for the Mansion House’s Southern-leaning owners the Greens, including patriarch James (Gary Cole) and daughters Emma (Hannah James) and Alice (AnnaSophia Robb), whose romantic entanglements lead them to involvement with subversive Confederate forces.
Mercy Street takes the basic period tension and adds layers of pragmatism that are provocative, but also contrived. The depicted Southern characters are all fighting to protect their lives, rather than their way of life, with the Union troops and doctors representing a brutal occupying force. It’s more likely that a character like Mary will need to learn to have mercy for all people than that Emma will have to confront her racist upbringing or the ultimately, hypothetical, merit of the Union cause. The aggressive overcompensating feeds a temptation to feel sorry for the Greens, especially since they’re portrayed as essentially ideology-free. They had slaves, but their slaves were compassionately treated and, in contrast, the freed African-Americans employed by the Northerners are being mistreated, overlooked and condescended to. Even Jed, so progressive with a scalpel or syringe and a Yankee himself, comes from a family with Southern roots and shows initial contempt for Samuel Diggs (actor-to-watch McKinley Belcher III), an African-American Mansion House porter with medical training courtesy of a Philadelphia doctor.
We know immediately that Samuel’s medical talents will exceed those of trained white doctors around him, but that he’ll have to prove himself under heightened circumstances and, fortunately, the circumstances around Mansion House are often heightened. Wounds are ever gangrenous, limbs are ever in need of removal and reproductive health is, to put it daintily, rudimentary. It’d be almost impossible for Mercy Street, directed by Roxann Dawson in its first three installments and Jeremy Webb in the next three, to compete with the stomach-churning barbarity of The Knick, but they do try. Even the most advanced of these physicians is a glorified butcher and even within the classy auspices of PBS, there’s sure to be some squirming.
But Mercy Street isn’t all brother vs. brother bickering and fully conscious amputations. There’s some comedy and a lot of flirting, some chaste and some consummated. Unfortunately, with only six hours to play with, character development is a frequent casualty of a jumpy and gap-filled narrative. Mary starts the show as a widow and Jed is married, but by the end of the run, we’re supposed to be ready for them to couple, especially since both characters have made great personal and professional progress at a rate that makes limited linear sense.
Mary and Jed are probably as close as Mercy Street comes to having leads, and Winstead and Radnor acquit themselves nicely.
Serving as the audience’s point-of-entry, Winstead goes through a too-rapid journey from wide-eyed to battle-hardened, plus her appearance and particularly her delivery aren’t distractingly modern. She doesn’t have to do her lines with a Kentucky Fried Chicken accent. Her unfortunate antithesis is Robb, who convincingly channeled ’80s chipperness for The Carrie Diaries, but seems to have arrived in Civil War times straight from the mall, generating mostly giggles. Robb and the rest of the Green family actors sound like they studied different dialect tapes and they’re never believable as a unified clan.
And Radnor escapes the shadow of How I Met Your Mother‘s Ted Mosby by finding Jed’s inner Ted Mosby. Jed’s name-dropping is sometimes insufferable, but coming from Radnor, it becomes a humorous trait. Jed goes through a brief drug-addiction arc that the truncated episode order renders incoherent, but Radnor separates himself from his sitcom past well, for viewers who missed his indie films.
The real humor here comes from Summers and Butz, as their characters get increasingly flustered by the sea change represented by Jed and Mary. Summers, one of the captains of my Their Real British Accents Sound Fake all-star squad, gets surprising laughs from her past with Nightingale and later from a detour into funny boozing, while Butz gets a kick out of belligerently arguing in favor of archaic medicine. They’re bad guys, but never threatening. The war offers the real darkness or, if you like your heavies broad, Wade Williams’ hospital steward is practically a drooling degenerate and definitely from a different show.
The six-episode first season is only enough to introduce the characters and the environment — production design and costumes are top-notch — but as the plot accelerates toward real excitement and introduces a notorious historical figure, that’s a wrap. In its quick run, Mercy Street establishes itself well enough that I could look forward to a more developed second season, especially if some of the Southern stars can get on the same accent page.
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