Mary Phinney arrives in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia, to serve as the first nurse at the Mansion Hospital, despite possessing limited nursing experience. Meanwhile, Emma Green, daughter of a Southern furniture magnate, seethes at having to share her home with Union soldiers. Will both women find a new purpose in devoting themselves to the wounded?
PBS’s new Civil War nursing drama is set to air on Sunday, January 17 at 10:00 p.m., but eager viewers can already watch the first episode online. Obviously PBS hopes this new mini series will appeal to fans of Call the Midwife and attract viewers of the soon-to-end Downtown Abbey. Despite the period garb and the nineteenth-century medicine, however, the first episode fails to capture either the charm or the heart of Call the Midwife.
Part of the problem seems to lie in the difficulty of balancing the cast. Episode one has to introduce all the main players, from Union nurse Mary Phinney to civilian Dr. Foster to Southern belle Emma Green and her family to the black orderly Samuel Diggs. Immediately viewers have to recognize that Mary thinks Union hospitals should not care for Confederate wounded, Dr. Foster thinks “contraband” aren’t to be trusted, Emma is spoiled but likely to change, and Samuel has to live with knowing that, though free and capable of providing medical care, he has to endure threats to enslave him and he has to pretend he possesses less skill than he does.
All of these subplots are set against the backdrop of a bustling hospital filled with internal politics, from disputes between doctors about proper medical care, to the resentment of a skilled nurse about being placed under the direction of Mary, a newcomer to nursing (unless you count the care she gave to her husband–whom others unkindly point out died under her ministrations). So much drama should promise a great season to come, but all of it seems a little unbalanced, a little unwieldy. There’s a sense that too much is going on.
There is also a sense that the drama was provided more for the sake of drama than for any social commentary of the kind provided by Call the Midwife. Samuel Diggs’s story should be a compelling look at race relations in America (a topic very relevant to viewers), but instead it feels like his character was inserted simply because the creators know that one can’t talk about the Civil War without addressing slavery. Likewise, Mary’s reluctance to care for the Confederate wounded and the subsequent confrontations she has with Dr. Foster and Emma should be emotional moments as the show looks at the effects of war. Instead it feels like false, conflict introduced just to keep Mary Phinney from becoming a Mary Sue.
Introductory episodes can often feel uneven as the show attempts to find its pacing, so for now I’ll keep watching in hopes that we will look more in-depth at the complex issues being raised, and in hopes that I will empathize more with the characters (who currently feel a little wooden). This drama chose an excellent setting and a compelling premise, and I want very much to see it succeed.