TV Review: Mercy Street, Ep. 1

Mercy StreetSummary

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.

Krysta 64

4 thoughts on “TV Review: Mercy Street, Ep. 1

  1. Kate @ Midnight Book Girl says:

    I haven’t watched Call the Midwife (but now I might!), but this does sound interesting especially since I grew up near Alexandria.

    It’s strange, though, growing up in Northern Virginia it never really felt like it was a southern state, and it wasn’t until I moved to Richmond, VA that I finally got a sense of the southerness of Virginia.


    • Krysta says:

      I love Call the Midwife! It deals with a lot of difficult subjects from abortion to mental illness with great sensitivity–and without suggesting any easy answers. Part of my disappointment with Mercy Street stems from the feeling that it didn’t really want to look at slavery in all its horror. But it’s in the show. You have to acknowledge it!

      I’ve been told by several people that “‘the South” does not start until you reach southern Virginia. Apparently a lot of people from the North moved down there so the culture is a little different? When I think of the Civil War, I think of the South starting below the Mason-Dixon line, but it is difficult to say that things automatically change once you cross over an imaginary line.


  2. Angelina @ Fable's Library says:

    I haven’t heard of this TV series until now (but I might have seen the commercial?). But I think that 1st episodes always tend to be shaky, because they have to set up everything, the characters, plot, setting, stuff like that. Then, after that episode it gets better, hopefully…I hope the series gets better🙂 when it comes out on DVD, I may watch it!!!!!


    • Krysta says:

      It started to get good in episode 4, which isn’t a great track record when there are only six episodes. Maybe there will be another season, though.


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