Looking Back on the First Season of the New PBS drama, “Mercy Street” and Forward to the Show’s Future


Enough time has gone by since “Mercy Street’s” season finale that a retrospective look at all six of its episodes is in order. Read on for my thoughts.

Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)


In my review of episode Two (“The Haversack”), I wrote: “I am now convinced that “Mercy Street” will make [Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who portrays nurse Mary Phinney]…a star.” I was certainly wrong. That this was true was no fault of the actress. “Mercy Street’s” Web site relates that nurses Phinney and Emma Green (Hannah James) are the show’s two main characters. However, the program in reality seems to be more one that featured an ensemble cast. Winstead simply did not have enough screen time for “Mercy Street” to serve as her star-making vehicle.

Hannah James (Emma Green)


Hannah James, who plays Emma Green, turned out to be a big surprise. It was obvious early on that she was “Mercy Street’s” reigning beauty. As the season unfolded and her role in the overall story ark of the season increased, it became clear that she has strong acting talent to match her good looks.

Frank Stringfellow (Jack Falahee)


When Frank Stringfellow’s name was teased in episode one (“The New Nurse”) I was left with great anticipation of what might come. Stringfellow’s real-life exploits as a Civil War scout and spy were fascinating and thrilling. The fictionalized version of the man could have been used to better effect. The degree to which the character balanced the “ER-like” aspects of the show that appealed to female viewers with more male—oriented content should have been greater. Although on the whole I enjoyed the Stringfellow character in some respects he was a missed opportunity for “Mercy Street.”

Mrs. Jane Green (Donna Murphy)

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The performance of Donna Murphy was most understated. This is probably the reason why it was not until after the season ended that I realized how very good she was in the role of Mrs. Jane Green.

Making a U-turn on Historical Reality Road


That the central plotline of the season finale involved an attempt to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln by blowing up the Mansion House hospital was most disappointing because it failed the historical plausibility test. In a February 17, 2016 blog post, “Mercy Street’s” Executive Producer, Lisa Q. Wolfinger attempted to justify writing the attempt into the show. She reported finding a January 10, 1862 newspaper story of a rumored attempt to blow up the hospital which was not connected to Lincoln and was said to have no basis in fact. Wolfinger wrote: “When we stumbled on this obscure story in the Alexandria Gazette we knew we needed to incorporate some version of it in our fictional world. [Why?] It is quite true what people say, “fact is stranger than fiction!” [So what?]  In truth the “diabolical attempt” turned out to be a series of coincidences and a large dose of rumor, [So why cheapen the show by including it?] but since the residents of Alexandria were clearly swept up in the rumor, we decided to run with it. [What the heck?] The gunpowder plot offered a perfect opportunity to create an edge-of-your-seat season 1 finale, while also weaving in two other historical stories we were interested in.”

I have always assumed that “Mercy Street’s” biggest draw for its fans is that it aims to be the most historically accurate Civil War-era drama in the history of television. The attempt to blow up the hospital was a u-turn on historical reality road. More such u-turns in season two could cause the show to end in a fiery crash.

Overall Impression of the Show


“Mercy’s Street’s” sets were impressive, its costumes deserve an Emmy and it was filmed beautifully. There was not a single bad acting performance turned in by the cast. Some cast members were exceptional in their roles. Its plots were interesting and exciting enough to be worthy of the large audience it earned. It deserved a good overall grade for historical authenticity.

What “Mercy Street” Should Do in Season Two


The historical record should be mined for rich material on Stringfellow that can be worked into the season.

The show still needs a bit more male-oriented content if it is to strike the correct balance necessary to be equally popular with both men and woman alike. If it fails to do so, it may not perform as strongly in the ratings in its second season.

The show should resists the urge to present content that fails the historical plausibility test for the time period.

It should bring back Myron Parker, Jr’s character, Miles. I want to know how his new life of freedom is turning out.

Just two days ago PBS announced that “Mercy Street” will be coming back next season. It was a record setting hit ratings wise and so its return was never really in question. We will have to wait many long months for new episodes. In the meantime, I plan to continue blogging about the show. Check back in with my blog in the next week for the first in a series of posts on the real Frank Stringfellow.

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A Review of Episode Six of “Mercy Street” (“The Diabolical Plot”)


Episode six of “Mercy Street” (“The Diabolical Plot”) was the series finale. It was also an installment that was disappointing and the worst of the season.

Suspension of Disbelief

When the series has been at its best, it was difficult to tell where the history ended and the fiction began. That so much of what transpires on the show is either found in the historical record or has a historical parallel has been the production’s best selling point. It has been easy to suspend one’s disbelief when watching is like seeing a history book come alive.


Some Plot Elements Were so Fantastical as to be Ridiculous

Unfortunately, aspects of the story told in “The Diabolical Plot” were so fantastical as to be ridiculous. We witness a fight between Dr. Byron Hale (Norbert Leo Butz) and Dr. Jedediah Foster, portrayed by Josh Radnor, over the use of Chloroform as an anesthetic during surgery. Chloroform was utilized as an anesthetic during the Mexican War of the late 1840s. It became an official aspect of the U.S. Army’s practice of medicine in 1849. Contrary to the impression one might have been left with after watching the episode, using chloroform as an anesthetic was not a newfangled idea during the Civil War. It was the norm. There was no major conflict in the army at the time between an “old school,” who did not believe in it, and doctors who embraced it. Perhaps the installment’s writers felt “The Diabolical Plot” needed a source of conflict between the two medical men.

Historical Authenticity Fell Short


There is no historical basis for a plot to kill President Abraham Lincoln by blowing up a hospital while he visited it. It should be noted, however, that the 1865 plot that ultimately did the president in was not the only plot against him after his election.

There were other more minor areas where the show fell short of the mark as far has historical accuracy. James Green’s (Gary Cole) speaking of his hope of “Jeff Davis…marching on Alexandria” indicates that “Mercy Street’s” historical advisor[s] who reviewed the script either fell down on the job or was/were ignored. Davis was the president of the Confederacy. In the vernacular of the time, Green would have spoken of his hope of General “Robert E. Lee” marching on Alexandria and not Davis.

Period Handwriting

Anyone who has conducted research using manuscript sources from the Civil War period can attest to how different the handwriting of the time was from what we are accustomed to today. It is too bad we did not see this handwriting in all its glory in the note delivered to Frank Stringfellow, portrayed by Jack Falahee, that communicated to him: “Operation log cabin confirmed. 4 P.M. Today.” Instead we read it in the style of cursive that has been taught in American schools from about the last third of the twentieth century onward.

Civil War Codes


One would have thought that Stringfellow’s fellow conspirators would have come up with a confirmation message that would not have been an obvious giveaway about the nature of the plot if it were to be intercepted en route. Some clever codes were used during the war and “Mercy Street” missed an opportunity to highlight this fact with the way the note was handled in the script for “The Diabolical Plot.”

Dr. Byron Hale


Other aspects of the episode’s storyline would be implausible to a silly degree even in a show set in a different time period. That Doctor Hale could get caught influencing the hospital steward to get rid of the hospital’s store of Chloroform as part of a plot to undermine and get rid of the hospital’s executive officer (Dr. Foster) and still maintain his position at the hospital is laughable.


Likewise laughable is the plot line involving Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III) and Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant). Sam returns to Alexandria after rescuing Aurelia’s son from slavery. He journeys to her cabin only to discover her gone. Fortunately for him, he notices on the floor a piece of paper that sends him racing for a boat leaving Alexandria. He arrives at the dock just before Aurelia steams away for Boston and the family enjoys a reunion.

Alice Green and Aurelia

The installment was not all bad. The angelic looking Alice Green (AnnaSophia Robb) joining the secret pro-Confederate society The Knights of the Golden Circle near the end of the episode was a very interesting development. Aurelia coming upon the hospital steward Silas Bullen (Wade Williams) bleeding to death and not helping him because of what he had done to her in the past was a powerful scene. I do not regret the time I invested in “The Diabolical Plot.”

It has not yet been announced if the series will come back for next season. It will likely depend on the series ratings. The ratings for the premier episode were strong. I have not been able to learn about how many viewers the remainder of the season’s installments had.

My blog posts on “Mercy Street” have generated a large number of views and unique visitors for my blog. For this reason, despite the fact that the season is over, I will blog about the show again in the next two weeks so check back in of you are interested. Until then, you may wish to read my reviews of the other five eppisodes that are also found on this blog.

Thank you for the support!

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A Review of Episode Five (“The Dead Room”) of “Mercy Street” (Some Spoilers Follow)

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For “Mercy Steet” it was another strong episode. I will try to touch on what other writers may have missed.

Dr. Byron Hale

Typically speaking , the only thing those in the entertainment industry know about the military is that they hate everything about it and everyone connected with it. I believe this ignorance and bias is reflected in the character of Dr. Byron Hale who played an important part in this episode. Unlike some individuals featured in “Mercy Street,” Hale is an invention of the show’s writers. The uptight, vain, self-important martinet of a military man became a stale, hackneyed caricature long ago. That Hale is drawn this way makes him a bore to watch.  This is not actor Norbert Leo Butz’s fault. It is the series’ writer’s responsibility.


Television’s default position is that it must give the viewer simplistic stories of good vs. bad. Hale is clearly intended to be one of the program’s two major villains. Because “Mercy Street” is broadcast on PBS, which does not have to be concerned with ratings, it disappoints me that the series adopted this convention. All of us have the capacity to do good and bad and do both. That all of “Mercy Street’s” characters are not as multifaceted as its audience is to the detriment of the program.



“Mercy” is one of the installments themes. Hannah James (she of the impossibly small waist), who portrays nurse Emma Green, delivers the best acting performance of the cast for the second straight week. From her mouth we learn how the series got its name. “The road they use to bring wounded men up from the [river] barges, I’ve heard them call it ‘Mercy Street.’ Because it leads them here. Where they might be saved. It is a lie. There is no mercy. Not here. Not anywhere.” Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) corrects her:” Isn’t there? Isn’t it what we offer every day?” The exchange made for one of the best scenes of the entire “Mercy Street”series.

It was a Racist World


The show deserves to be commended for depicting the fact that the world of 1862 was a racist world and there were racists in both the North and South. Perhaps it was too much to ask for “Mercy Street” to demonstrate that people of all races have always been both perpetrators and victims of racism.

Subtle Touches


I noticed a number of subtle touches which add to the historically realistic feel of the series. One was the blood spatters on the wallpaper of a room in the former luxury hotel turned hospital that has been converted into an operating room.

President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln

Near the end of the program we learn that President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, will be visiting the hospital. The news gave yet another reason to look forward to the season’s climatic instalment next week.

Frank Stringfellow


Frank Stringfellow, again ably played by Jack Falahee, was a key part of the episode. His lying to Emma, and telling her that Confederate private Tom Fairfax (Cameron Monaghan) was killed while trying to surrender, instead of being honest, and stating that he committed suicide, was the first signal that Stringfellow may turn out to be a second tier villain of the series.

Series Deserves Emmy for Costumes

Tom’s burial scene was another example of the wonderful job those responsible for the customs on the show have done. The ankle-length Victorian black morning dresses, completed with black veils, worn in the scene were eerie in the extreme. If “Mercy Street” does not win an Emmy for costumes the provost marshal should arrest the voters.

John Wilkes Booth

In the installment’s final scene Stringfellow meets with a person who is obviously  John Wilkes Booth. Stringfellow and Booth speak of a plan to assassinate Lincoln by blowing the Mercy Street hospital up. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Although I have previously criticized the show for plots that did not have a whole lot interesting and exciting going on, the same cannot be said for this episode. This week’s show was very busy and entertaining. The season finale should be just as thrilling and a real treat all around!

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A Review of Episode Four (“The Belle Alliance”) of “Mercy Street” (Some Spoilers are Revealed Below)


Episode Four of the PBS drama, “Mercy Street” was another strong installment. There is so much that I could write about and almost all if it is good. I have exercised restraint and tried my best to be mercifully brief in this blog post.

Jedediah Foster


Four episodes into the show the montage and theme music that plays during the series’ opening credits elicits joyful anticipation for what is to come. Early on we see Surgeon Jedediah Foster’s experiencing withdrawal while attempting to conquer morphine addiction. What is viewed proved to be powerful television thanks to actor Josh Radnor. The audience suffered along with both Foster and nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who cares for him and suffers his verbal abuse as a result.

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It is as a consequence of a later scene in which Dr. Foster has a big part that I am forced to “call shenanigans.” Foster is shown to talk Samuel Diggs, (played by McKinley Belcher) a free black laborer working for another surgeon, through a most complex and difficult operation that saves the life of contraband laundress Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant). I am no medical historian. I do know, however, that internal surgery of any kind was very rare at this time in history. Civil War surgeons mainly just amputated. It is why they were often called “Sawbones.” The scene was therefore historically implausible. I realize, of course, that “Mercy Street” is a drama and not a documentary. Nonetheless, since the program appears to be going for the title of most historically accurate Civil War-period drama ever produced, I feel the scene in question detracts from the credibility of the series.

The Green Family

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Most interesting in this episode is the evolving story of the Green family. In the show’s premier we learn that the family’s luxury hotel, Mansion House has been seized by the Union and become an army hospital. In this fourth installment, the Confederate sympathizing Greens learn that their house will be temporarily commandeered for a Union Army ball dance.  In what was a fascinating commentary on human psychology, the Green’s are seen to be angered by what they see as a personal affront and simultaneously driven by pride to impress their “guests” and help put on the best ball possible.

Gary Cole as James Green


It is while the ball takes place that Green patriarch James has a scene that is likely to be central to the overall story ark of the series. In my reviews of other episodes of the program, I mentioned that the authenticity of the cast’s accents was impressive. In this scene, as well as his others in this installment, actor Gary Cole’s Virginia accent falls short of the mark when he gives voice to James Green.

Hannah James as Emma Green


Also important to the ball storyline is nurse Emma Green. In my other reviews of the  show’s episodes I singled out the thespian I felt put in the best performance. This time around it was Hannah James as Emma.

Period Dresses in Full Color

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Emma dons one of a number of beautifully feminine ball gowns seen in the installment. I have written before about the authentic look of the middle and upper-class dresses worn in the series in my other reviews. It was not until I was able to feast my eyes on the ball gowns that it occurred to me that what has really struck me was that I have been able to see in full color dresses that I had only known from black-and-white period photographs.


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Emma’ mother, Jane Green (Donna Murphy), delivers a line during the ball that sums up one of the central themes of the episode. “A man’s true duty is to protect his family,” she tells her son. The comment speaks to the Green’s attempt to adjust to life under what the family looks at as a Union “enemy” and “occupying” force.  It is also a concept that we have to a significant degree abandoned in 2016. This is unfortunate since peer reviewed research studies show that 95% of the problems we face in the U.S. can be traced to parents who do not take responsibility for their children.

Relatable Characters

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The installment’s concentration on the Greens allows me to bring up an aspect of the show that has been ever-present in the program. The entertainment industry typically depicts Southerners as universally dumb, ignorant and villainous caricatures. The Southerners of “Mercy Street” are shown to be people of their time who say the things they say and do the things they do because of the world in which they lived and the society in which they were born and raised. In this way, they are not different than “Mercy Street’s” Northerners. They are also no different than us. We can relate to the show’s characters and this is one reason why the series has been a hit.

PTSD Then and Now

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In the episode’s closing moments, Confederate private Tom Fairfax (played by Cameron Monaghan) commits suicide. He is suffering from what we today know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and would rather die than return to the battlefield. The installment obviously drew a powerful parallel between Civil War soldiers and the PTSD and high suicide rate of U.S. Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans.

Frank Stringfellow

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My personal favorite program character, Frank Stringfellow (Jack Falahee) the exciting Confederate spy and scout, was up to more cloak and dagger activities.  He engineers Tom Fairfax ‘s escape from the Mercy Street hosital only to witness Tom’s shooting himself in the head.

I yearn to see more of Stringfellow in the last two episodes of the series. I do not imagine I will be disappointed. I am likewise eager to learn what became of Myron Parker, Jr’s character Miles after he liberated himself and walked away from his master. After four enjoyable episodes, I am confident I will not be displeased by the remainder of the series regardless.

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A Review of Episode Three (“The Uniform”) of Mercy Street (Some Spoilers are Revealed Below)

stringfellow 3.jpgThe third episode of the new PBS drama, Mercy Street was by far the best of the three. It was so good, in fact, that I hardly knew where to start this review.

Historically Authentic Feel of Show

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Believable accents, period women’s hairstyles and period women’s dresses were again striking. All once more added to the historically authentic feel of the show. So too did the continuation of the story of Confederate private Tom Fairfax (Cameron Monaghan) suffering from what we know call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


In my previous reviews of the first two installments I was somewhat critical of the evolving plot. The pace of the developing story lines of this episode was quicker, more exciting and generally much more interesting.

Jedediah Foster


The depiction of surgeon Jedediah Foster’s ungoing struggle with opiate addition was memorable thanks to the performance of Josh Radnor. A scene that involved an amputation of a soldier’s leg by this very same surgeon was just graphic enough that the viewer could not take his eyes off the television screen but at the same time one had to fight the urge to look away due to the revolting images witnessed.


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The most impactful aspect of the installment centered on former slaves who had taken advantage of the war and run away from their owners and into Union lines. The characterization of how such “contrabands,” as they were called, wrestled with what their newfound freedom did, could and should mean was fascinating. Myron Parker, Jr. portrays a household slave who appears to have been subjected to no abuse by his owners besides that which is obviously entailed by being held in bondage. He is brought from Maryland to Alexandria, Virginia where he encounters both African Americans who were born free and contrabands. He ultimately decides to liberate himself and simply walk off. Parker possesses the acting skill of person of a much more advanced age and outshone his fellow cast members.

Frank Stringfellow

A major criticism I made of the shows’ first two episodes was that it was too much like the show “ER” and as a result lacked that which was necessary to interest men as well as women in large numbers. I speculated that the first appearance of the amazing Confederate scout and spy Frank Stringfellow could change the program’s dynamic and give it a more balanced appeal.


Stringfellow (Jack Falahee) showed and I was not disappointed.  While posing as a dentist’s assistant, he has killed a Union Army Colonel and secured valuable intelligence. More such cloak and dagger activities are sure to follow.  Additional civilian characters have hinted at their own future participation in clandestine actions in support of the South. A meaningful male audience has seemed to have been secured. Enough of what typically draws women remained in place.

Every television show selects one episode per season to submit for Emmy consideration for best series. I am confident episode three will be the one those behind the program will pick. While I doubt any of the remaining three installments could be as good as this one was I am certain each will be very entertaining in their own right.

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A Review of Episode Two (“The Haversack”) of “Mercy Street” (No major Spoilers are revealed below)

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The second installment of the new PBS drama, “Mercy Street” could be described as more of the same. It was nonetheless worthy of comment.

Historical Accuracy

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In my review of the show’s premier episode I wrote: “The program appears to have reached a level of historical accuracy for television Civil War-era dramas never before achieved.” (See: http://tinyurl.com/zqhdtht for my review.) Episode two held true to this same high standard. A number of the series’ characters who had a significant role in this installment look more like those seen in Civil War era photographs than Hollywood movie stars. I was particularly struck by the authenticity of the accents, women’s hairstyles and women’s dresses.

Women’s Fashion of the Period

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When viewing members of the cast acting in reproductions of middle and upper-class dresses it was obvious how drastically these clothes restricted movement. One has to assume that changing in and out of them, as well as the many layers of that which was worn underneath, took a considerable amount of time and effort and was very hard to do without a good deal of assistance.

Woman’s fashion in the U.S. Colonial Period was much more practical and less restrictive. It may not be a coincidence, then, that our Colonial ancestors were less prudish than our Victorian predecessors. I have always wondered if women’s fashion of the Victorian era, which was presumably designed, manufactured and sold by men represented an effort to control women. Middle and upper-class men who were terrible husbands probably slept better knowing that the clothes their wives wore made it difficult for a woman to have an extra-marital affair without getting caught.

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who portrays nurse Mary Phinney, wears such dresses well. I am now convinced that “Mercy Street” will make her a star.


At times, however she can barely be seen. When writing on episode one I noted that the period lighting level used was at times so dark that one could not see what was transpiring on screen. Lighting was even more of a problem in episode two.


My biggest criticism of the show’s premier was that the plot did not have a great deal going on and seemed to appeal mainly to women . Plot development in episode two was not much better.  A critic who compared “Mercy Street” to a soap opera was being unfair. A better comparison was made by the critic who noted a similarity to the program “ER.” This is fitting since David Zabel, the co-creator “Mercy Street,” was also a writer on “ER.”

I still believe that “Mercy Street” has the potential to become a production that can be a hit with both genders. The fascinating Confederate scout and spy Frank Stringfellow has not yet made his appearance. I am hoping he can save the show for me and the rest of its male viewership.

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A Review of Episode One (“The New Nurse”) of the New PBS Drama, “Mercy Street” (No major Spoilers are revealed below)

20151221_205621_641668ms_101_6.jpg.1280x720_q85.jpgThe 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.

The Basics


“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.

Historical Accuracy


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.

Frank Stringfellow

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.

If you enjoyed this blog post, please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter.

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I believe in free speech and so I approve all blog comments. No exceptions.