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‘Mercy Street’ review: Civil War inaction on PBS drama

Hannah James, left, and Josh Radnor tend to

Hannah James, left, and Josh Radnor tend to Civil War casualties in a mansion turned hospital in PBS' "Mercy Street." Credit: PBS / Antony Platt

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Jan. 17 at 10 p.m. on WNET/13


WHAT IT’S ABOUT By the spring of 1862, Alexandria, Virginia, has been taken over by Federal forces. A hospital for the Union wounded has been set up at Mansion House, a tony former hotel once run by James Green Sr. (Gary Cole), whose circumstances have been reduced to making coffins for the war dead. Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a staunch Yankee abolitionist, is sent to the hospital, where Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor) copes with the crush of patients and a morphine addiction.

MY SAY Of all the incontrovertible impressions that still linger from the American Civil War, this has to be the most incontrovertible — it was dramatic. For TV producers, here’s something else that’s incontrovertible — it’s expensive. Staged battles, along with their casts of thousands, don’t come cheaply, which is why TV has mostly avoided the war head-on for decades.

But “Mercy Street” — public TV’s first American drama in decades — avoids the subject simply by avoiding it. There are no battles, nor much of a sense of the sweep of history either, for that matter. Radnor completes the illusion — an unintentional one — that this almost could be a 21st century hospital drama with a few minor adjustments to dialogue and period costumes. He’s a good actor, but you will still struggle to expunge the enduring memory of Ted Mosby from “How I Met Your Mother” when he’s on-screen. That’s the flip side of sitcom success: Viewers’ memories aren’t so easy to expunge.

Casting isn’t remotely the problem with “Mercy Street.” The cast in fact is terrific. (It also includes Norbert Leo Butz, Peter Gerety and AnnaSophia Robb.) A cramped, airless setting is the critical flaw here. Nothing comes to life — words, drama or most of all, characters. Everything, everyone, is flattened on the screen. Their lines dutifully tell you that a cruel, inhumane war has stripped families, individuals — black and white — of their human dignity. But “lines” shouldn’t tell you anything. The story should. After three episodes — the number I saw — even that was inert.

BOTTOM LINE Excellent cast, lifeless drama.

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