I’m rooting for PBS these days, as “Downton Abbey” winds down its six-season, record-breaking run. The show brought attention and respect to PBS and “Masterpiece” for what they’ve been doing so well for decades — delivering smart scripted period dramas that are both literary and broadly entertaining. I’m hoping “Downton” fans will keep PBS on their list of TV outlets with potentially good stuff to watch. And I’m hoping PBS will be able to come up with more outstanding shows for those viewers, dramas that artfully weave together historical moment, society, and culture.
The new six-part series, “Mercy Street,” probably isn’t going to solidify anyone’s relationship with PBS going forward. Despite the lovely title, used by both musician Peter Gabriel and poet Anne Sexton, the show is obvious and inauthentic as it tells the story of a makeshift hospital in Alexandria, Va., during the Civil War. The characters are one-dimensional, so that you essentially know who they are within a minute or less, not least of all the spoiled-belle Confederate volunteer Emma Green (Hannah James), who’s straight outta “Gone With the Wind.” And the story lines about patients are didactic, there simply to provide the writers with EZ-to-read lessons about race, war, and medical progress.
At one point, good-guy doctor Jedediah Foster (played by Josh Radnor of “How I Met Your Mother” with a tad too much contemporary affect) says, “Blood is not gray or blue, madam. It’s one color.” Get it? Got it. Good. “Mercy Street” is chock full of such textbook Civil War comments and clichés. When an injured soldier is carried on a board through a scene yelling theatrically, “My eye! My eye!,” my eyes simply rolled. Compared to the realism of “The Knick,” also set in a hospital whose practices seem primitive compared with today’s, “Mercy Street” is like a cartoon.
At the center of the action is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Mary Phinney, a Union nurse who is learning fast about the bloody nature of war injuries and hospital politics. She must deal with the officious Anne Hastings (Tara Summers), a nurse who trained with Florence Nightingale and never misses an opportunity to brag about it. An abolitionist with strong commitments, Mary is not crazy about having to treat wounded Confederate soldiers equally. She also stands up for the black characters, one of whom, Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III), is not allowed to practice medicine even though he worked for a doctor and has the skills. Her most interesting conflict — and the show’s best twist — is that she must contend with racist thinking from one of her allies, the generally liberal and compassionate Jedediah.
I like the idea that PBS is exploring an American period drama. Why not? Over the years, “Masterpiece” has featured American settings with some success. But “Mercy Street,” which is admirably earnest but wooden and predictable, falls short.
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor, Gary Cole, Hannah James, Norbert Leo Butz, Peter Gerety, AnnaSophia Robb, Cameron Monaghan, Donna Murphy, Cherry Jones. On WGBH 2, Sunday, 10 p.m.