Set in the Union-occupied city of Alexandria in the Confederate state of Virginia in the midst of the American Civil War, Mercy Street (2016) explores the conflicts between North and South through the uneasy interactions between the occupying Union forces and Northern doctors at a Union army hospital. Set up in what had been the city’s luxury hotel, the Southern civilians and occasional wounded Confederate soldier are treated along with the Union men in a town where free black citizens, slaves still not emancipated, and the occasional runaway passing through on the way north are also part of the volatile mix.
At the center of the sprawling cast is Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a Boston widow and abolitionist sent to be the hospital’s head nurse, and Emma Green (Hannah James), a southern belle in the town’s leading family who volunteers as a nurse in the hospital to help the Confederate soldiers neglected by the Union staff. Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) is the forward-looking civilian doctor who clashes with the veteran military surgeon who prizes authority over modern medicine and Gary Cole is loyal Southern patriarch attempting to balance his Confederate loyalties with keeping the peace under military occupation.
The first original scripted drama produced by PBS in over a decade, Mercy Street is a medical show by way of a historical drama, an American story that takes its cues from British period pieces and fills its cast with strong American actors. The first few episodes set up the conflicts, both political and personal, and establish the contradictions among the characters, but the series really comes alive when the personal stories begin to drive the drama and the conflicted characters find themselves torn as their loyalties are tested. It improves with each episode and the season ends with some startling events that promise an eventful second season in 2017.