TV

Mercy Street captures the fractures, fears, and frills of the Civil War era

Television
by Laura Finch
Posted 3/09/16, 12:20 pm

If there’s a Downton Abbey–sized hole in your heart this week, give Mercy Street a try.

PBS’ newest show whisks viewers inside a bustling, chaotic Civil War hospital and doesn’t attempt to hide the horrors inside. It’s the kind of show that goes to the trouble of finding delicate, authentic-looking wallpaper for its surgery room set and then spatters it with blood. The first season contained only six episodes and has already aired. It is available on PBS member websites and Amazon Prime Video.

“We’re not putting it at 8 [p.m. during prime time] and there’s a reason for that,” Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive for PBS told The Washington Post. The third episode shows an amputation from start to finish. Episode two briefly shows a rape. Although the viewer sees only the character’s faces, the brief clip is haunting. Later in the season, the same character appears bloody and near death after trying to perform an abortion on herself.

The blood and tragedy don’t feel gratuitous, but rather honest portrayals of a turbulent time in American history based on true events in Alexandria, Va. starting in 1861. The war split consciences, families, and communities the way the show’s doctors cut apart limbs. Union officials took over a luxurious hotel owned by a Confederate family, the Greens, to use as a makeshift hospital.

In the show, tension ripples through the Green family as each member grapples with how to respond to the expropriation. A northern nurse struggles with whether to treat wounded Confederate soldiers with the same care as those fighting for the Union, and “contraband” (formerly enslaved people) must decide how to relate to their employers and other Alexandrians.

Unlike other medical dramas that tend to follow a certain set of patients through each episode (a la Call the Midwife), this one feels a little schizophrenic at times as it chases too many subplots at once. The show films in Richmond and Petersburg, Va. While the writers take many liberties with the true story of the Green family and their hotel-turned-Union-hospital, the actual Carlyle House still stands open for tours on Fairfax Street in Alexandria, Va., just 8 miles south of the U.S. Capitol. Site Manager Susan Hellman says they’ve seen a 158 percent increase in visitors over the last 12 months, largely due to interest in the show. (She recommends weekday mornings as the best time for a tour for those interested in visiting over spring break and summer vacation.)

CBS has commissioned its directors, Ridley Scott (The Martian), David Zucker (The Good Wife), and David Zabel (ER) to make a pilot together for another medical drama. But that won't interfere with a second season of Mercy Street, which just got the greenlight from PBS, the network announced today. For now, PBS lovers can enjoy the first season, and staff at the Carlyle House will try to keep up.

Laura Finch

Laura is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked at C-SPAN, the U.S. House of Representatives, the Indiana House, and the Illinoise Senate before joining WORLD. Laura resides near Chicago, Ill., with her husband and two children. Follow her on Twitter @laura_e_finch.

Read more from this writer
ADVERTISEMENT