The slight sense of longing that runs through the six episodes of PBS’s utterly average Civil War drama “Mercy Street” is not about the characters’ wants and desires or the ample metaphors evident in a tale of disunion. All a viewer can feel here is that PBS wants to be dealt into the high-stakes game of Peak TV, but on its own terms.
“Mercy Street,” which premieres Sunday night, mainly serves as a reminder that PBS’s best (also only) scripted shows are imports, which suits its deeply Anglophilic viewers just fine. This is mostly a matter of economics (it’s far cheaper to buy broadcast rights to British shows than to produce original prime-time programming) and it’s arguably a wise use of public broadcasting’s limited and highly scrutinized funds.
But as you’ve probably had explained to you by the uncle who just figured out how to stream Hulu, this is the “Golden Age of television,” which makes it hard for PBS to sit by and not at least try to make some lavish new content as everyday rerun outfits such as, say, WGN America, gin up their own. There’s also a crisis afoot: PBS’s biggest hit in years, “Downton Abbey,” is ending, presenting a fine opportunity to prove that American public television is up to the task. You can’t blame PBS for wanting a piece of the action.
But you sure can pick apart “Mercy Street,” set in 1862 at an Alexandria hotel that the Union has recommissioned as a makeshift hospital for wounded soldiers.
The creators, a trio from Ridley Scott’s busy production company, have embraced the central lesson from “Downton” and other “Masterpiece” hits, in that viewers’ favorite British period pieces tend to stick to one main location. Downton’s inhabitants might run cursory, plot-purposeful errands to London, but if you so much as get on a steamer bound for some exotic destination (i.e., anywhere not Downton), well, perhaps we’ll read your letters aloud at breakfast. “Downton” was never more out of its depth as when it briefly accompanied the men to World War I battlefields, because people came to see the castle.
Thus, nearly all of the action in “Mercy Street” wisely keeps to within a few muddy blocks of the Mansion House hotel, owned by a stubbornly Confederate Virginian, Jack Green (Gary Cole). Unwilling to sign his formal acquiescence to the Union, Green and his family politely tolerate the indignities of occupation.
Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an idealistic Boston abolitionist coming off a year mourning the death of her sickly, wealthy husband, has decided to become a wartime nurse. Her supervisor in Washington (Cherry Jones in a cameo role as Dorothea Dix) sends Mary across the Potomac to work as a nurse supervisor in the hospital and to report back on its conditions.
Here, Mary encounters two clashing philosophies: A pompous military surgeon, Dr. Byron Hale (Norbert Leo Butz of “Bloodline”), prizes efficiency over empathy, to the point that he has become an impulsive amputation advocate. (What “Mercy Street” lacks in battlefield intimacy, it certainly makes up for in hacksaws, screams and bloody stumps.)
In another wing of the hospital, a younger, less orthodox surgeon from Maryland, Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor of “How I Met Your Mother’s,” ably shedding the last of his sitcom skin), advocates the latest advances in anesthesia to allow for more complicated and painful procedures or to alleviate suffering. Dr. Foster is so high on the effects of morphine that he’s actually high on the effects of morphine, much like the addict-genius Clive Owen character in Cinemax’s “The Knick.”
Now comes a series of “meanwhiles” in an orderly, even perfunctory array of historically appropriate subplots: Green’s family, including his wife, Jane (Donna Murphy), and prim, petticoated daughters Emma (Hannah James) and Alice (AnnaSophia Robb), react to the occupation in different and petulant ways. But it’s Emma who decides to visit the wounded Southern boys who languish in a neglected ward and discovers that she, too, has a calling to become a nurse.
These novice nurses must put up with a lot of condescension and lectures from senior nurse Anne Hastings (Tara Summers), a secret drinker who claims to be a close acolyte of Florence Nightengale — and who also hops in bed with Dr. Hale at night. I’m not the first critic to note a Hot-Lips-and-Frank facsimile here (jerk doctor and snotty nurse have a not-so-secret fling). In fact, the more you think about it, “Mercy Street” could just be a very earnest version of “M*A*S*H” repeats.
Everything in the show is dutifully sketched: The humorously cranky hospital matron (Suzanne Bertish); the soulfully handsome chaplain (Luke Macfarlane) with a crush on Emma; the Confederate spy (Jack Falahee) posing as the town dentist; the slaves and former slaves in various states of freedom and suffering, who, even in a 2016 TV show, still find themselves relegated to second-tier story lines. They include Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III), who has freedom and medical knowledge yet cannot practice as a doctor, and the hospital’s “contraband” laundress, Aurelia (Shalita Grant, giving the show’s most memorable performance), who is routinely raped by the hospital’s white steward (Wade Williams).
The elements for a PBS period drama are all here. The cast is capable. The details, references and costumes are correct. The history pretty much checks out. There are worries and tears and clever retorts, minus premium cable’s penchant for anxiety-ridden intensity and heavy violence. There is just enough soap added to create a few bubbles, but not so much as to lose credibility.
So after all this effort, what’s missing? Why does “Mercy Street” clop along at half-trot? Why is its gaze as far gone as a daguerreotype? Does it really just come down to the absence of British accents? Perhaps.
It could also be Civil War fatigue. That period may be one of public television’s bottomless wells in the nonfiction genre and an endless source of fascination for history buffs and reenactors. But after so much attention to the war’s 150th anniversary in recent years, it might have been worth considering some other spot along the American timeline to dramatize. (Admittedly, it’s hard to find a period that isn’t taken: AMC is still doing the Revolutionary War in “Turn: Washington’s Spies”; HBO did Prohibition in “Boardwalk Empire”; WGN America is bringing out a slavery-escape series in “Underground,” while A&E redoes “Roots.” That basically leaves the pioneers or the Pilgrims — and they’ve been done a lot, too.)
Even so, in this current day of acrimonious politics and social divide, a Civil War drama ought to do quite well for itself. “Mercy Street’s” problem is an ineffable lack of cohesion and oomph. The blood is spilling, but the heart’s not pumping.
Mercy Street (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on WETA, MPT and other PBS stations.