January 18, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Mercy Street”


MERCY STREET:  Sunday 10PM on (many) PBS stations – Potential DVR Alert

PBS isn’t accustomed to acting like a conventional “network,” and so it took the service until the very last episodes of Downton Abbey to do what any normal network would have done years ago:  use Downton as a platform to launch a new original dramatic series.  (Note:  because PBS operates as a collection of local stations rather than through a centralized programming authority, its shows may air on various days and slots during the week.)  The series that finally emerged is MERCY STREET, a solid enough historical effort that plays as a more genteel version of The Knick.

Set at a military hospital in mid-Civil War 1862 Alexandria, Virginia, Mercy Street‘s narrative is efficiently assembled by pilot writer and series co-creator (with Linda Q. Wolfinger, who shares credit for the story) David Zabel, last heard from when both his series Betrayal and Lucky 7 flopped last season on ABC.  Because Alexandria was on the border of the war, its hospital was inhabited by both Union and Confederate patients, as well as both free and slave African-Americans, allowing plenty of scope for its characters and story.  The pilot, in time-honored fashion, follows the first day of a newcomer to the Mansion House hospital, Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has a somewhat colorful backstory as the widow of a German Baron who’s come late to nursing.  She’s introduced to Dr. Hale (Norbert Leo Butz), whose specialty is amputations, the more idealistic Dr. Foster (Josh Radnor), and hospital head Dr. Summers (Peter Gerety), who wants no part of her.  There’s also the haughty Nurse Hastings (Tara Summers), who worked with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea and won’t let anyone forget it.

The hospital was taken over by the Union Army from its previous tenure as a hotel owned by the Confederate Green family, and since they live just a street away, we also make their acquaintance:  father James (Gary Cole), mother Jane (Donna Murphy), younger daughter Alice (AnnaSophia Robb) and especially older sister Emma (Hannah James), who comes to the hospital to give comfort to the Rebel patients and who, despite some initial hostility from Mary, will probably return.  Also figuring to be important is Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III), a free black man raised in a doctor’s household who’s the Civil War version of The Knick‘s Dr. Edwards.

The first hour of Mercy Street mostly occupies itself with introducing the characters and setting.  For anyone who watches The Knick, the tropes about the brutal state of medicine in those times will seem familiar, as will the emphasis on the horribly misguided mistakes physicians made with the best intentions (morphine is pronounced a wonder drug with no side effects in 1862, just as heroin was in The Knick‘s 1901).  Zabel doesn’t shy away from cliches, like the 15-year old soldier who’s not quite through dictating his heartfelt farewell letter to his family when he succumbs to his injuries.  Mercy Street is more interesting when it delves into issues more specific to its setting, like the early comprehension of what we now call PTSD, or the tensions that arise when soldiers on both sides of a war are competing for scarce resources.

The series is handsomely produced, although the initial hour is mostly set in the interiors of the hospital and the Green home.  Where it really shows its class is with its remarkably fine cast.  Winstead has long been a leading lady in search of a role worthy of her talents, so far best seen in indies like Smashed, and this has the potential to be a breakout role for her.  The short 6-episode order also evidently allowed busy actors like Butz (from Bloodline), Luke MacFarlane (from Syfy’s Killjoys), Cameron Monaghan (from Shameless) and Cole (from seemingly everything on television) to take roles, along with experienced performers like Gerety, Radnor and Murphy.

It’s doubtful that the PBS audience could handle the undiluted content of The Knick, and Mercy Street (which so far keeps its amputations off-camera) seems like a worthy compromise between that sensibility and the unbroken civility of Downton Abbey.  This is the one chance PBS has to capitalize on its biggest hit, and while the result isn’t a reinvention of public broadcasting, it promises to provide an engrossing weekly hour.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."