The new PBS drama, “Mercy Street,” shows promise. After watching episode one, however, it remains uncertain whether it will be worth investing the time in the next five installments set to air.
“Mercy Street” is inspired by true events and features a goodly number of real characters. Most of its action takes place in what was a former luxury hotel known as Mansion House that has been taken over and converted into a Union Army hospital in Alexandria, Virginia.
Thanks to a team of very knowledgeable experts, the program appears to have reached a level of historical accuracy for television Civil War-era dramas never before achieved. Visually feasting on the sets, costumes, hair and makeup is akin to seeing Civil War period photographs come alive in full color. When historically realistic dialog and strong acting is thrown into the mix, the results leave the viewer feeling as if she or he is standing in the hospital while groaning, wounded soldiers are brought in, men in danger of dying are operated on and surgeons and nurses do their best under the most difficult of circumstances. Some scenes are quite graphic and the reviewer’s decision to watch while eating a very late dinner was a big mistake.
Nurse Mary Phinney
The audience feels for New England native and abolitionist nurse Mary Phinney as she struggles to adjust to the blood and gore. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is such a natural in the part that she seems to have hopped in a time machine and come straight from 1862. She is the series’ star so far though its other main character, Virginian and Confederate supported Hannah James, portrayed by Emma Green, also plays her role well. The entire supporting cast delivers at least adequate performances.
The reviewer almost fell out of his proverbial chair when Confederate Frank Stringfellow was mentioned. Though little known to any but historians and Civil War buffs, Stringfellow was one of the most amazing men the war produced North or South. He will appear in the remaining five episodes of the show. If he is featured in a way his life story deserves, he could become burned into the American consciousness as a consequence of “Mercy Street.” Since the program focusses on the home front and civilians, it is unclear what his role will be. Time will tell.
It could be that the show has focused so much on getting the history right that some of the dramatic aspects of this historical drama have suffered as a result. A minor criticism is that the period lighting used is at times so dark that some scenes are less rewarding than would otherwise be the case because one does not have a good view of every detail of what is going on.
A more important point is that there is not all that much happening in as far as plot. If viewers are to tune in and give the show huge ratings the series will need to give us more reason to be interested in and therefore vested in the characters and how their lives unfold. Furthermore, the plot, as far as it does exists, seems geared mainly toward women. A large male audience can only be earned if the nature of the plots of the remaining five episodes is different in character and has more male appeal. Stringfellow may be just what is needed.
In order to be successful, “Mercy Street“ will have to be more than just good history. If history is all it has to offer one will be better off spending the next five Sunday nights watching historical documentaries or reading quality history books. It will have to be good television. I will be tuning in next Sunday for episode two. “Mercy Street“ deserves all who read this to give the show a chance as well. I hope to be wowed and look forward to seeing Stringfellow on the small screen.
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