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Mercy Street: Season 1, Episode 1 - "The New Nurse"

Sean Fennell

Civil War period drama Mercy Street offers enough interest to satisfy the coming Downton Abbey drama drought.

Mercy Street

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: McKinley Belcher III, Shalita Grant, Suzanne Bertish, Norbert Leo Butz, L. Scott Caldwell, Gary Cole, Peter Gerety, Hannah James
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 1 - "The New Nurse"
Network: PBS
Air date: 2016-01-17

New Year, new original programming. No industry seems quite as booming as that of scripted drama on television. Whether this wellspring will eventually lead to a bursting bubble, as some predict, is yet to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: new and ambitious scripted drama will continue to emerge at a furious pace in the coming months. The most prestigious of these programs are usually scheduled for Sunday night, and this includes PBS’s new Civil War drama Mercy Street.

Mercy Street, a show attempting to fill the Downton Abbey-sized gap that'll come in the next couple of months, is yet another period drama from the folks at PBS. This time, rather than a series in which characters exist in a world on the precipice of change, Mercy Street focuses on those who are adapting on the fly to the devastating nature of a war that tore apart both families and the country.

The main character of our story, and the vehicle by which we enter the world, is Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). We're introduced to Phinney just as she arrives in the Union-occupied, war-torn town of Alexandria, Virginia, to begin her time as a volunteer nurse for the northern soldiers. From the moment of her first introduction to head nurse Ms. Dix (Cherry Jones), we begin to get an idea that the world she's entering is not unlike many we've seen before in this historical drama genre. It is stressed from the opening moments that women are not respected and not particularly welcomed on the war’s front lines; simple necessity's what forces the Union doctors to employ the help of women, and to act otherwise is to forget your place.

The other main force within Mercy Street, that has arguably a more difficult time than even Phinney in establishing her role (although she’s eventually begrudgingly accepted), is Emma Green (Hannah James). The Emma Green we first meet is not nearly as sure of herself as Phinney. She seems as if she’d be content watching the war unfold from the sidelines, if it weren't for her family having been forced to give up their posh hotel for the use of Union soldiers. Emma's your prototypical southern belle, donned in a hoop skirt and a perfectly crafted outfit, speaking with an air of sophistication even as she eventually makes her way to the hospital -- unbeknownst to her parents -- to help some confederate soldiers being neglected in the Union hospital.

It's clear that both Phinney, and probably to a more extreme degree Emma, will continue to grow as nurses, and challenge the establishment that expects little of them other than kind words and delicate sensibilities. As has been the case with Downton Abbey over the last couple of seasons, this growth will likely be the catalyst for much of the show’s drama, with each character challenging not only themselves, but also the world they inhabit.

The other main catalyst for action is the chaotic world of the Union hospital, where the injured move in far faster than even a team of experienced doctors could handle. So far, it seems the hospital not only doesn't have a team, but barely has a handful of doctors, who themselves seem to be making most of it up as they go along. The head of this team is Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor), a calm, collected Maryland man whose support of the war is more practical that altruistic.

It’s this aspect of his character that puts him at odds with Phinney in the series' opening episode. Dr. Foster is a supporter of the Union for the simple reason that they are the Union, and that fighting to keep the country together is surely more righteous than the alternative. Mary sees the fight as one for the soul of the country rather than the body, one that pits good against the evil of slavery.

It goes without saying that race will play a major role in a Civil War drama. We're first introduced to what may be the biggest story line in this regard when we meet Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III), a free black man whom we soon find out is gifted in the medical field. How exactly he has learned such things isn't immediately evident, but when he’s able to suture a dying patient, it's clear his skills are far beyond his lot in life. It likely won’t be the last time we see Diggs show off his medical talent, but something tells me not everyone will appreciate his help as much as Mary, who covers for him when Dr. Foster comes by to check on the patient.

Pilots are always difficult to analyze; "potential" is often the best adjective you can give to a show still finding its footing, and Mercy Street has plenty of that. Although some aspects of the ploy may be predictable, the drama emerging from the many conflicts of the Civil War period, both ideological and physical, promise to demand attention. While it’s unclear in the first episode, we're also likely to get some juicy love stories. Whether that comes in the form of nurse and doctor or forbidden love between outcast and debutant isn't clear yet, but whatever happens in the remaining five episodes of the opening season promises to be dramatic.


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