I wish I was a U.S. Civil War historian or at least a Civil War reenactor so I could get really riled up and angry about PBS Masterpiece’s latest historical costume drama Mercy Street (2016). But as more of a generalist, and this production being not horrible, yet not by any means great, the most I can work up is a big fat MEH. The costumes are overall accurately done, and it appears that some money was thrown at the miniseries. We don’t see egregious errors of hair, makeup, materials, or silhouette that will quickly date it as so very 2010s. What shows its age is a script that’s riddled with modern cliches, melodrama, and an amazingly squishy bending-over-backwards attempt to show everyone involved in the Civil War as nuanced and complicated and principled that results in no one character in the show being at all interesting or believable.
Let’s being with the
- Mary Phinney — the wealthy, widowed, volunteer nurse, who’s also an New England abolitionist (that’s at least 3 cliches).
- Dr. Jedediah Foster — the unhappily married, drug-addicted doctor who knows cutting-edge medical techniques and considers all wounded men equal, Union or Confederate, but is just fine with slavery (5 cliches)
- Anne Hastings — bossy know-it-all nurse who worked with Florence Nightingale and thinks Phinney is useless amateur, and Hastings is shagging the second doctor (3 cliches)
- Samuel Diggs — the free black laborer at the hospital who was trained in medicine by his former employer and is in love with a female escaped slave who works in the hospital laundry and is getting raped by a sadistic white man (3+ cliches)
- Emma Green — the Southern Belle daughter of the family who owns the hotel that’s turned into the Union hospital, she beings nursing the wounded (2 cliches, but I’m sure she’ll pile on more as the story proceeds)
- James Green, Sr. — the Southern patriarch whose property is being used by Union soldiers, while he’s also making back-handed deals to the Yankees, plus his woodworking factory employs free black men, not slaves, because he’s just that enlightened (3 cliches)
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The subordinate characters are just as much stock figures, nothing original or new, and their storylines are awfully predictable. Now, I’ve watched The Crimson Field and ANZAC Girls recently, and both of those miniseries about WWI nurses had some of the typical ‘women in wartime’ storylines such as the experienced nurse vs. the inexperienced one, class issues between women, and, of course, romance. But those two serials primarily had women as the protagonists, which I found more interesting (that’s how we roll around here), and neither of those shows felt like they were forcing a politically correct angle down my throat.
See, one problem with American Civil War dramas is that everyone wants to rewrite history for their own biases. That always happens with history, but we’re still pretty prickly about that little war between the states, what with slavery and entrenched racism and all (go look up #BlackLivesMatter if you think the issues started back with the secession aren’t lingering in the U.S. now). As a born Southerner who’s lived most of her life in the ultra-liberal San Francisco Bay Area, I have a deep understanding of white liberal guilt, and that’s what I sense oozing out of every scene of Mercy Street. The main two female characters are the least interesting because they solely exist as PC spokespeople. Mary Phinney is the Lefty who stridently tries to make everything better but has a thing or two to learn about how the Real World Works. Meanwhile, naive Emma Green is the nice little Conservative who pipes up with the voice of reason, even though she’s otherwise ineffectual and actually gets in the way. Tedious. I can’t work up enough interest in or empathy for these characters because they’re not real people — they’re just props to hang a Trite Yet Very Important Lesson on.
That said, Mercy Street passes the Bechdel test more easily than Crimson Field and ANZAC, since Finney, Green, and Hastings have pretty much no conversations about men and romance. Well, they do talk about men, but it’s just wounded soldiers, so I don’t think that counts. So yay for women who are more than mere sex objects, but boo for self-actualized AND non-boring women characters.
The Costumes in Mercy Street
Designer has been on the costume and wardrobe staff for historical productions such as Lincoln (2012), John Adams (2008), and Cold Mountain (2003). A selection of her costume sketches, sometimes with historical inspirations and fabric swatches, are featured on the PBS website. The overall look is generally right for the 1860s. This isn’t the 1930s with princess-seams and pointy boobs or some cheapo poly-baroque satin deal. Corsets and crinolines appear to be worn where appropriate, and there’s no shortage of hairpins on the ladies here.
The issues with Mercy Street‘s costumes are more subtle. Color choice and use are a little bit off for the era, and trims aren’t always quite right. Thankfully, this is most apparent in characters we see least of: the upper-class Southern ladies, matriarch Jane Green and youngest daughter Alice Green. They get the most ostentatious outfits, and when you go big, that’s when you have the most opportunity to go wrong. It’s just the risk you take. For comparison, Frock Flicks reader Sarah Wagner posted her very helpful Pinterest board of 1860s women’s day dresses full of museum extant gowns and period photos.
Some of the things worn by Emma’s impetuous younger sister, Alice, have caused a bit of controversy online.
I’m not saying the critiques are wrong, but women did wear a big ol’ lacey collars / berthas / capes in this period. The one in Mercy Street may not be the best recreation, but the floral lace is reminiscent of patterns in Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was the most popular magazine for American women in the 19th century.
Emma Green’s costumes are to a higher standard overall, which is good since she gets more screen time. As the wide-eyed innocent, she starts out in a frothy white gown, then turns to more practical calicos.
Mary Phinney and Anne Hastings get mostly practical clothes, and that works. These two are almost always in the hospital, so they don’t wear crinolines, just petticoats. Phinney re-wears the same gown a lot — I guess because she just arrived with one little carpetbag — and Hastings has several very tailored and crisp gowns — probably because she’s English and supposed to be oh-so-proper and uptight.
There’s a grand ball scene later in the series where everybody dresses up, however, and I fear that’s going to turn out the fugly. The advance stills make me question the taste level.
For comparison, here’s some historical images … similar or no?
I wish Mercy Street had more fully-realized characters and less pat storylines. I’d be less tempted to nitpick the costumes if I gave a shit about these people and what happened to them. But halfway in, watching feels like a chore (one I’m doing to write this blog post, frankly), and I don’t know that I’ll do more than TiVo and fast-forward through the rest on bored night. It’s not even bad enough to hate-watch and snark. Meh, I say, meh.
Do you have more or less mercy for Mercy Street?
Meh, indeed. I haven’t been able to make myself watch ep 3 yet because I just. don’t. care. And it’s not even that I’m not particularly interested in the Civil War or that I got a bellyful of CW history growing up in Alexandria alongside the Colonial/Rev War history. The show so far is like a bowl of porridge. Unflavored porridge. Filling and healthy, but ultimately unsatisfying and tends to sit in the belly like a lump of cement.
Perfect summation. This is a deeply unsatisfying show.
Yes, this is it. It’s aggressively bland.
I didn’t even know this was around. I’ll have to give it at least a couple episodes to see what I think. :P
I usually love Civil War dramas. So, I’ll have to see what the fuss is about.
Clara Barton, 1866, pioneering American Civil War nurse. Why isn’t she referenced instead of the British Florence Nightingale?
Because to do so would be historically incorrect. Clara Barton was not a household name in 1861.
For some reason, I thot the show as set in 1864 (tho’ I can’t find the date on the PBS website right now), & while Barton wasn’t a household name, she held an official position by then. Anyway, it would have been a good way to introduce more American history into the show, which is one of the purported aims of the series, according to various interviews w/the showrunners.
It’s set in early 1862—which is why they’re still talking about the war being over in a few months. Dorothea Dix was in the first episode—she’s the one who sent Mary to this particular hospital as her “representative” and head nurse.
Dorothea Dix, then perhaps? Although, judging y the pictures above, none of the 3 nurses would have met her guidelines–between the ages of 35 and 50, and plain in appearance, brown or black gowns, no hoops, no jewelry or cosmetics
By 1862, Miss Dix had tossed aside her guidelines and was willing to accept anyone.
I made it through episode one and haven’t gone back. I agree with your analysis both of the costumes and the characters. I think the problem is, it’s hard to write a character or play a character who is a good guy, but casually racist as is correct for the period. So you’re left with the evil bad guy, the odious and annoying bad guy or a bunch of good guys who are missing a dimension that would make them truly interesting. (If you see what I mean.)
I’d like to see a good writer — say, Aaron Sorkin level (not him, but just throwing out a name who does some of my fave TV character work, tho’ sadly not the best female characters) — take on Civil War drama. The cliches & stock characters are killing me.
“At the hospital, Emma chats up Dr. Foster’s bitchy wife Eliza — who’s wearing a smart plaid number. Note Eliza’s lovely crimped hair and ribbonwork net covering the back of her head.”
That’s actually Alice Green, Emma’s younger sister. I was so thrilled to see her in something other than the Pink Monstrosity. The plaid seemed to be designed rather well and I jumped for joy when I saw that lovely ribbonwork net.
Are you sure? In Eliza’s first scene (the argument about why she & the doc are still hanging around Alexandria), she’s wearing this same plaid head to toe.
Yeah–it’s Alice. She wore that in ep3 when she went to visit Tom (or whatever his name is) in the hospital. This is another shot of her in it, you can see her face more clearly: http://deadconfederates.com/2016/02/01/mercy-street-episode-3/
The hell, did they have a bolts of that same fabric??? Weird.
On the “card de visits, doesn’t her skirt look pleated rather than gathered? I like how it looks, and it probably affects how the fabric moves.
You’re being way too kind. The costuming is hideous, simply hideous.
When you’ve watched as many historical costume movies & TV shows as we do around here, you save hideous for Snark Week ;-) Honestly, the costume critiques of this show are really nitpicks about very small issues. It doesn’t give an overall WRONG impression of the 1860s. The silhouette is correct, the fabrics are correct, the hair is (mostly) up & in the right shape. We’ve seen far, far worse for this period.
Bur neither the silhouette or fabrics are correct for the era. Nuances in dress and typical construction shapes are completely ignored.
And I’ll just say, since people not in the 1860s research community may not know, but K is one of the top experts in the field. If she says atrocious, you better believe it is. Now, she will beat me with a wet snood for outing her. :)
As a history lover who has lived in Alexandria for 25 years, I looked forward to this series for months, but I have to agree, it’s pretty blah. I’ll watch it to the end but not re-watch. Ep3 spoiler (you’ll thank me)–fast-forward through a stomach-churning leg amputation (I checked out altogether) or you may be unable to concentrate on the costumes. To Toni: the opening scenes feature “Dragon” Dix interviewing Mary Phinney before she assigns her to the hospital. Big thanks to FF for an (often hilarious) education in film costuming. I now closely examine trims and tucks, pleats and embroidery, etc. (Downton, W&P) which might previously have gone unnoticed.
The amputation almost kept me awake, hah!
As an historian of the South for the era in question, I was looking forward to eventually seeing this, but now I’m considering giving it a miss entirely.
Maybe you could work up enough fire to hate-watch it then? The period isn’t my fave so the show’s problems didn’t anger me as much as some ppl.
Worth was right- the crinoline is dead. ;-)
I can (mostly) over-look the clothing if the story is well-written. But you were spot on in Mercy Street’s cliches. When so many historical dramas shown on PBS are so very popular (and done very well indeed for history’s sake) one would think PBS would have gotten it right.
So much potential, and yet…*sigh*…
Not that it’s perfect, but I’ll return to “Turn” on AMC.
Call me crazy, but I liked it more than I thought I would (I just watched the pilot for the hell of it). It seemed very… trope-y, but fairly well cobbled together, and I liked the production values, especially with the street scenes and all the extras. I usually avoid anything set during the Civil War, so possibly I’m not as burned out on things set during that period as maybe Trystan is. Also, the 1860s is not my period, so I’m not going to notice all the goofy costuming stuff (as I would in War & Peace, which I am avoiding like the plague). It seems fine to me, though the Barbie pink polyester lace number made me cringe a bit. But correct silhouette, hair pinned up, right underpinnings– that’s all good. The white dress was especially nice, and I love seeing hair done up for once. (I am SO TIRED of seeing the Game of Thrones style side-pieces-of-hair-braided-back-and-the-rest-flowing-free pin-free hairstyle that’s everywhere now in Costumelandia. Blah.)
But yeah. Mainly I enjoyed watching an American period piece without the Usual Cast of British Actors Who Are In Everything. I especially enjoyed seeing Ramona Flowers and Ted Mosby and Barry Bostwick in a costume drama. I found it refreshing. I’ll continue watching, because why not. It might disappoint me later on, but as long as I’m moderately entertained (with lots of eye candy), I’m easy.
As someone who is willing to read or watch virtually anything involving Civil War nurses, I’m definitely disappointed in the writing on this show. I’m not sure I’d characterize it as forcing a politically correct angle, but it’s certainly afraid to show casual racism in characters it wants you to empathize with. Difficult, greyish morality is pretty necessary if you want to make any meaningful fiction about the time period. So I wouldn’t want them to ignore race, but I would like them to be less awkward about it (I wonder whether all of the writers are white?).This latest episode spent some more time with the Black characters, at least.
I think the show would really benefit from more dynamic cinematography in addition to less awkward costuming. But I’m impressed with their willingness to use ugly hairstyles (and awful relatively accurate accessories, especially on the less sympathetic characters).
I dunno if I’d use the term “politically correct” or “PC” for lots of good reasons.
“Revisionist white liberal guilt” is just as good for what you mean here.
Ummm, the last Godey’s Lady’s Book plate caption should be changed to 1863. Not 1963. You’re makin’ me feel old!
Otherwise, I enjoyed the critique and all of the examples of accurate period gowns. I have to say we watched the last episode of M.S. on vacation and can’t remember how it ended. I guess that says something….
I’ve already completed Episode 2 of this production. It’s pretty damn good so far. It’s like watching a 19th century version of MASH, but with a little more melodrama.
Well…after I slammed it I gave it another watch. Actually, I found the series on Blue Ray pretty cheap and bought it. Hey – – it’s period, right?
So, guess what? The further I got into the show, the better the story became. By the time I watched the 4th episode, I was hooked. The 5th and 6th were excellent.
I hope it returns next year.
Season Two early look is up: http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/extras/behind-scenes-costumes-sets-props/bts-sneak-peek-gallery/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=mercysocial&utm_campaign=mercystreet_2017
You can begin conjecture on whether the costuming has improved!
Regardless of whether the costumes will improve or not, I will be watching. I’m already a faithful viewer.
Well, I’m late to the party! Lord have mercy, indeed. I watched the first season religiously, but I didn’t even make it through the first episode of Season 2. As a native South Carolinian (die-hard bleeding heart liberal, though) the “honey chile, hush yo’ mouth” Southern accents kill me.
I also may have stopped watching as soon as I saw that the nasty Silas survived. I have no idea if he made it through the entire second season, but that first episode was more than enough for me.
I don’t really understand this article’s hostility toward “Mercy Street”. Okay, the costumes are not completely accurate, but why get anal about it? The inaccuracies are at best, minor. As for the Green sisters, despite their family being under Union occupation, they’re not exactly struggling or being denied the opportunity for new clothes, due to the family’s furniture business.
I don’t understand this hostility. Is it really about the costume’s minor inaccuracies? Or minor historical inaccuracies (which nearly every historical drama I have seen is guilty of)? Or was it due to this belief that you could judge the characters (in a serial drama) after one or two episodes? I’ve seen both seasons of the series. It was a pretty damn good show. And I wish that PBS had continued it.
They pointed out that the inaccuracies were minor!
The hostility is because they felt that there were too many cliches in the story. If the characters had been more original, they might have liked it more.
Sometimes one person likes a movie or tv show that someone else does not. I like this show, with all it’s cliches. It’s entertaining.