Is ‘Mercy Street’ Just What the Doctor Ordered?

Mercy Street

“Mercy Street” Seems Poised to Take the “Downton Abbey” Slot In Viewer’s Hearts

With the beloved Downton Abbey leaving television in early March, fans of the high-concept costume drama must be in need of some consoling. PBS might be able to wean viewers off of Abbey’s tight hold and onto the new medical drama, Mercy Street. It’s a handsomely produced hour, and it features a bevy of characters. Will it prevail as a new poignant slice of history, or (as God as my witness) will it leave viewers hungry?

Mercy Street‘s pilot episode, produced by Ridley Scott, mainly focuses on the introduction to Mary Phinney, a countess turned head nurse of the Union-occupied Mansion House Hospital located in Alexandria, Virginia. She’s played with an unspoken optimism by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. In the first 50 minutes, Mary’s challenged by many people within the hospital walls, and she realizes that being a nurse is a job that one cannot prepare themselves for until they are tending to the soldiers.

Even though “The New Nurse” centers on Mary’s introduction to Mansion House, we manage to be introduced to an impressively large cast of characters. The most dynamic scene is between Mary and Emma Green, a Southern belle whose family happens to own the hospital. Emma challenges Mary’s viewpoints on caring for Confederate soldiers even though Mary is vocal that she knows the difference between right and wrong when talking about the injustices of slavery in another scene. Is right and wrong as clear as black and white?

The women of Mercy seem to stand out more at this point than the men. Along with Mary and Emma, AnnaSophia Robb pops up as Emma’s sister, and Broadway legend Donna Murphy plays Jane Green. I never knew that I needed to see Murphy play a strong matriarch in a hoop skirt, but I’m so glad it exists. How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor plays a surgeon that keeps his eye on Mary’s behavior. It’s odd to see him in a dramatic role (I’ve only seen him on HIMYM), and I hope they don’t take him into too much romantic leading man territory. A romance is quietly hinted at, but I sure hope these six episodes don’t waste too much time on a random romance. There’s a lot of rich stuff here without the necessity to add potential frivolous romance.

Mercy Street deftly walks a fine line between ER and Call the Midwife. While there is chatter about cardiac palpitations and wood syringes, Mercy doesn’t bog down the drama with such talk that those who failed out of med school would feel stupid. A show like this must have the right balance, or it will put off either side of its audience. The marvels of modern medicine of Civil War America could take up a sizable documentary series, but the relationships between the characters enhance this chapter of history.

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