Review

Big, bold and unruly, 'Mercy Street' revisits the divided America of the Civil War

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

The Civil War returns to television after a long absence to remind us that as bad as this country's political divisions may seem, they could be, and have been, much worse.

Also that PBS is still counting on "viewers like you" to tune in even after "Downton Abbey" ends in a few weeks.

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The network's first American-produced drama in 10 years, "Mercy Street" attempts to capture the complex realities of the Civil War through the nexus of a Union hospital in Alexandria, Va. The title refers to the road leading to Mansion House, a military-commissioned hotel where soldiers from both sides often suffer as much as they did on the battlefields.

While the limits of early medicine brutally echo "The Knick" (down to the perils of self-medicating surgeons), the series is much more of an ensemble drama with characters representing as many sides of the conflict as co-creators Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel felt they could handle without actually boasting "a cast of thousands."

Also unlike "The Knick," or "Downton Abbey" for that matter, "Mercy Street" is an old-school period drama, more reminiscent of a mid-20th century miniseries than the glossy grit of the post-cable world; its tone, like its hoop skirts and too often its characters, goes for big and sweeping rather than exquisitely detailed

It's 1862 when two new nurses join the staff of Mansion House: Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a staunch supporter of the Union who is also, oddly enough, the widow of a German nobleman, and Emma Green (Hannah James), a Southern belle whose family owned Mansion House before the Union occupation. Mary has been assigned as the hospital's first head nurse by her instructor Nurse Dix (an underused Cherry Jones), who feels it is just the place for a "noisy abolitionist."

She is greeted with marvelous disdain by Nurse Hastings (Tara Summers), whose constant name-dropping of Florence Nightingale, with whom she worked in the Crimea, is one of the best things in the first hour — surely this is the first character in the history of television to name-drop Florence Nightingale.

Nurse Hastings is not thrilled by Mary's new managerial position, nor are most of the doctors, including hospital supervisor Dr. Alfred Summers (the always wonderful Peter Gerety), the belligerent careerist Dr. Byron Hale (Norbert Leo Butz) and the more kindly but still racist Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor). (What is the point of writing a Civil War drama if you can't have a character named Jedediah, especially when he's played by a former member of the "How I Met Your Mother" cast?)

As for Emma: Her parents, James (Gary Cole) and Jane (Donna Murphy), believe the war will soon be over, with the South victorious; meanwhile they are attempting to cope with what they see as a temporary reality. Emma visits Mansion House in hopes of finding her beau, Frank Stringfellow. Seeing that many of the staff, including Mary, would ignore even grievously wounded Confederate soldiers, she decides to stay.

Occupied by Union Forces, Alexandria is now "free" territory, though many believe escaped slaves — referred to as contraband — are not to be trusted and should possibly be returned. Even free black men and women are treated at best as second-class citizens. So Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III) must hide his knowledge of medicine, as "contraband," Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant), has fallen into the clutches of the hospital's brutal steward.

As the story progresses, there are personal crises, political machinations, terrible suffering and rebel plots — John Wilkes Booth even makes an appearance — all offered with an air of hope that refuses to choose sides. While "Mercy Street" explores the viciousness of slavery and provides villains aplenty, its heart lies in its attempt to fulfill its tag line: "Blood is not blue or gray."

It is an enormous undertaking, far more ambitious than many other period dramas, with their reliance on unshaven antiheroes and brothel scenes. Overcrowded with plot, character and intent, the production has an earnest theatricality that can be both charming and tedious. Certainly viewers have become used to a more seamless, if often self-indulgent, artistic vision.

"Mercy Street's" creators are clearly more interested in fleshing out a variety of themes than fastidiously measuring the distance between the cutlery or the depths to which a lead character will sink.

It's difficult to see it becoming the new "Downton" if for no other reason than the Southern accent is no match for Brit of any variety. But then who needs a new "Downton"? "Mercy Street" is less polished than other period dramas, but it's also less precious, and that alone feels refreshing.

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'Mercy Street'

Where: KOCE

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 16, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Amid war, they hope for `Mercy' - TELEVISION REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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