“Mercy Street” tries to be a lot of things at once: It’s a historical exploration of the divided loyalties of the Civil War, a costume drama with mild comic elements, an occasionally harrowing medical saga, and a coming-of-age story for several of its lead protagonists. At times, the show’s attempts to knit these strands into a unified whole get tangled or frayed, but its cast is generally quite good, and for aficionados of period pieces and 19th century history, “Mercy Street” offers a number of enticements.
Be forewarned, however: There will be blood. The drama shows characters boozing, taking drugs, having sex and cutting into diseased flesh — but this is still PBS, and nothing is inserted just for shock value. That said, one or two “Mercy Street” medical interventions may cause the queasy to look away. Along with “The Knick,” “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” and elements of “Outlander,” “Mercy Street” ends up being something of an advertisement for modern medicine. Whatever other faults or flaws they have, today’s doctors typically don’t operate drunk or high on opiates, and if nothing else, they wear gloves when rooting around inside bodies. These back-in-the-day dramas make it clear that being ill or injured was a decidedly chancy condition prior to, well, now.
One looks at the unsanitary conditions in the Civil War hospital of “Mercy Street” and almost wonders if the soldiers who died on the battlefield might have been better off. As the drama makes clear, just getting a meal during recovery was no sure thing. Treatment that actually helped soldiers heal, mentally and physically, was often all too rare.
The show can be a little disjointed or didactic, and there are many scenes of doctors confidently using techniques that viewers know to be unhelpful, a conceit that gets old relatively fast. But the good news is, “Mercy Street” is not grim. Actually, the drama it most resembles is the earnest U.K. import “Call the Midwife,” in which a troupe of capable if charmingly prickly women do their utmost to care for members of their London community, whatever their patients’ social status or medical condition. That’s something that new nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) struggles with at first: As a committed abolitionist, she takes one Union doctor to task for his detached views on slavery. When he directs her to treat all injured soldiers equally, without regard to which side they fought on, she resists.
Winstead is the smart, capable center around which “Mercy Street” pivots. She’s so good that it’s hard not to wish the show had pared down the sheer number of storylines it attempts to service in its six installments. Mary’s stint as the new head of nursing at the Union hospital in the free city of Alexandria, Va., brings an array of challenges, from doctors who think treatment consists of merely cutting off various limbs, to the Southern belle who wants to help but has no experience and little stomach for the bloody work at hand. Mary must also contend with the presence of Anne Hastings (a tart and effective Tara Summers), a nurse who trained with Florence Nightingale and doesn’t let anyone forget it.
There are some drawing-room-comedy elements to the squabbles among staff members, and none of that quite jibes with the serious and quietly affecting tale of Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant), a free black woman who struggles with ongoing exploitation and subjugation by a corrupt and powerful white man at the hospital.
The ambiguous status of the city’s African-American residents is another fruitful area that “Mercy Street” could have spent even more time on. The drama explores the different plights and opinions of those who were born free, those who escaped slavery and those who remain enslaved, and it touches on the fact that all of them live in fear of bounty hunters who, as depicted in “12 Years a Slave,” would kidnap free men and women and transport them to slave states for profit. Grant is truly excellent here, as is McKinley Belcher III, who plays Samuel Diggs, a black man who is far more skilled at medical treatment than most of the members of the staff, but must hide his talent from his patronizing white employers.
“Mercy Street’s” least successful elements are a few cartoonish characters, like a dismissive Army doctor who continually puts the kibosh on new treatments suggested by Dr. Jedidiah Foster (Josh Radnor, now free of “How I Met Your Mother” and sporting a lush beard). But the drama’s superficial and strained elements are generally outshone by fine work by cast members such as Luke Macfarlane (“Killjoys”) and Cameron Monaghan (“Shameless”), who play a preacher and a soldier with PTSD, respectively. Gary Cole is typically excellent in a somewhat underwritten role as a Confederate businessman whose commercial interests are threatened by the war. Like many others, his prosperous character is truly convinced that the war between the states will be over in a matter of months.
There is an undeniable squareness to “Mercy Street”; the dramatic tone is much more sincere than that of Cinemax’s “The Knick.” But there’s room for both approaches, and Roxann Dawson’s supple, empathic and creative direction makes full use of the drama’s detailed Virginia settings.
All in all, PBS is to be commended for delving into the stories of men and women of all backgrounds just trying to survive a meat-grinder of a war without losing their souls (or too many limbs). The more specific “Mercy Street” gets about individual moral, political and psychological dilemmas, and the more it gives its finest cast members scope to display the more subtle aspects of their craft, the more winning it becomes.
Discussions of “Mercy Street,” “Billions,” “Angel from Hell,” “Man Seeking Woman,” “The Shannara Chronicles,” “London Spy” and “Colony” can be found on the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here and on iTunes.