Do you count yourself a longtime fan of history-heavy films? Are you obsessed with period drama? Maybe you’re the type who’s never missed a single series premiere on PBS. In any case, somehow you’ve found yourself settled in with Mercy Street, a Civil War-set medical drama that’s the first original American series to premiere on PBS in years.
For the record, it’s rare to come across a sophisticated American version of the series typically set on the other side of the pond. Whether it’s PBS’ Mr. Selfridge, Call the Midwife, or Downton Abbey, UK-based dramas usually veer toward the riveting and respectful without being resorting to saccharine or silly over-the-top tactics. The Brits have a track record of getting it right — and we love them for it. Americans on the other hand? As far as stateside-set historical shows, we have AMC’s Revolutionary War drama Turn and FX’s Reagan-era series The Americans; both excellent but not exactly in keeping with PBS’ style of dramatic production.
That said, getting Mercy Street made — and on air — seems to be a minor miracle meant especially for fans of the period-set soap: It’s beautifully shot and painstakingly designed, with a large cast, which includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Hannah James, Gary Cole, Josh Radnor, AnnaSophia Robb, Jack Falahee, and McKinley Belcher III. (The Martian director Ridley Scott and former ER showrunner David Zabel executive produced the six-part series.)
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Deftly blending elements of a medical drama with a war-set period piece, Mercy Street revolves around a pair of volunteer nurses in the form of abolitionist-leaning Northener Mary Phinney (Winstead) and Southern belle-slash-Confederate sympathizer Emma Green (James). This is no fluffy story about love lost and crumpled crinolines. That much is clear in the opening scene, where Winstead interviews with testy hospital director Miss Dorthea Dix (Cherry Jones).
“Slavery is not a political question. It is a moral argument,” she says in response to a loaded question about where she stands on slavery. “I only mean to say, emancipation is upon us.”
This dignified, steadfast response — honestly, the woman never seems to flinch, an asset given the primitive nature of medicine at the time — earns her a spot as head nurse at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, a Union-occupied border town divided between Yankee and Confederate loyalties. But Mary’s mission isn’t political: She’s charged with providing her services during a bloody war to Union Army doctors who “do not like women, or nurses,” warns Miss Dix.
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