NOTE: This review contains MILD spoilers for the PBS original series.
This is a 6-part (1 hour long) historical drama series set during the American Civil War. It’s shot on location in Richmond, VA w/ actors who are stage veterans, newcomers, and local extras. You may have guessed that Richmond stands in for Alexandria, which was occupied by the Union Army at the tail end of the war.
Unlike MOST dramas you’d see on PBS, it has some bloody/realistic scenes (being set in a makeshift Union hospital). It’s NOT always fast-paced, BUT as it aims for historical accuracy and staying true to the (real-life) people who inspired the lead characters. The main protagonist is a (still youthful) Northern widow, Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She’ll will make you think of actress Dana Delaney- they’re BOTH tall, elegant, redheaded, and played nurses.
Nurse Phinney lost her husband (an older European baron) to an illness NOT too long ago; she took care of him, then got trained as a proper nurse. Mary wants to be useful, speaks confidently, works hard, and is able to stand up to the (male) doctors. The hospital administrator/veteran doctor, Dr. Summers (Peter Gerety from Homicide: Life on the Street) is impressed by her credentials and gets her working quickly.
Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor, w/ an impressive beard) is the best doctor at this hospital; his brusque manner and lack (or avoidance) of social niceties puts others off. He’s also a conflicted man, hailing from a wealthy slave-owning family, BUT working as an Union contract surgeon. This is why you don’t see him in uniform at the start of the series. Radnor is best known for comedy (How I Met Your Mother); he is also a theater actor (having worked on Ayad Akthar’s Disgraced in BOTH Chicago and NYC).
Dr. Byron Hale (Broadway actor Norbert Leo Butz) is the doctor who thinks he’s the top dog, BUT is less skilled and innovative than Dr. Foster. The arrogant Dr. Hale and ambitious British nurse, Anne Hastings (Tara Summers), have an alliance BOTH in and out of work. Nurse Hastings trained under the famed Florence Nightingale- the model for ALL nurses (esp. those in times of war).
The proud Southern family, the Greens, that used to own the hotel (now the hospital) are also part of the story. The patriarch, James (Gary Cole), balks at signing a loyalty oath to the Union cause. He somehow managed to keep his son out of the war, though Jr. resents it bitterly. The matriarch, Jane (Broadway veteran Donna Murphy) is concerned about the growing rebelliousness for their two daughters, Emma (Hannah James) and Alice (AnnaSophia Robb, all grown-up from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). These girls have beauty, manners, charm, and style (like proper Southern belles); they also harbor a few secrets. The older sister, Emma, wants to volunteer at the hospital, BUT only w/ the injured Confederates (who are kept in a separate/guarded room). Alice is angered by the fact that loyal Confederates like her family and friends have become second-class citizens in their own town.
There are three well-developed black characters in the series: Belinda (the Greens’ lifelong housekeeper); Aurelia (a young laundress who is “contraband” from the Deep South); and Samuel (a free black man who works as a porter). We learn that Samuel (McKinley Belcher III in his first TV role) knows a LOT, having been raised in the home of a Jewish Philadelphia doctor. Samuel helps out Nurse Phinney and Dr. Foster on several difficult cases. He feels great sympathy for Aurelia, wants to be her friend, BUT she’s wary of men (and has cause to feel that way). Samuel has to keep his head down and not cause a stir- he’s a black man in the South now.
You MAY be surprised to see Jack Falahee (How to Get Away with Murder) as a Confederate spy. He’s also the secret beau (hence the meeting alone in the woods) of Emma. Frank brings some intrigue, danger, and tension to the later eps of the series (leading to the finale).
3 thoughts on “Mercy Street: Season 1 (PBS)”
I watched the first episode of this when it was broadcast and then didn’t really get drawn in.
It doesn’t really get going until Ep 3 (IMO). It was called TOO slow by some reviewers out there, BUT I tend to watch everything Civil War-related.
The main thing I remember about the episode I saw was that there was a German sentence and there was something wrong about it (I admit I am too picky about historical drama). Ah well, maybe someday when I’m snowed in or have the flu …