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An Inside Look at Mercy Street

A new show focuses on seemingly endless war, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, and a nation struggling with the complexity of race and gender.

Set in 2016? Try 1862.

Mercy Street, the sweeping Civil War docudrama on PBS, promises intriguing characters, drama, and even humor, says David Zabel, a creator and writer for the series.

“When we started to write this show, we asked ourselves how we can make the history speak to audiences now,” says Zabel, who wrote for the NBC series ER, and won the Humanitas Prize for his work. He spoke to a group of students, faculty, and community members at the Norris Center on February 3 during a panel sponsored by the Office of External Programs, Internships, and Career Services (EPICS), WTTW, and the School of Communication. Zabel was joined by David W. Zucker (C86), an executive producer of Mercy Street as well as the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated series The Good Wife.

The drama, which tackles the medical challenges and advancements of the time, includes stories of doctors just starting to identify the effects of PTSD, the nature of drug addiction, and new inventions such as the ambulance. It’s based on real events and includes historical characters. Set in the Mansion House Hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia, the show gets its name from the street leading to the hospital. Soldiers, praying for treatment for their injuries, call it Mercy Street.

“Initially, this was going to be a medical historical drama,” Zabel says. “But when we set it in Alexandria, it became a much broader story. Here, you have this crossroads of people, both Union and Confederate soldiers, nurses and widows, escaped slaves and free men, and they all cross paths in interesting and surprising ways.”

The panel, which was moderated by the Department of Radio/Television/Film Assistant Professor Zayd Dohrn, also included clips from the show, which is three episodes into its first season.

Zucker, who also produced The Man in the High Castle for Amazon, says PBS is known for its heavily British programming like Downton Abbey and Sherlock Holmes, but it set out to find an American show shot in America with American themes. Zucker says this sweeping epic thinks big.

“Did I mention this show has eighteen series regulars? That’s just… that’s just crazy,” jokes Zucker, who discussed the challenges of coordinating shooting schedules.

Mercy Street also has an army of nine expert historians, advising the show on everything from the proper medical equipment and techniques of mid-19th-century practice to how a woman’s corset is tied. When asked what he learned from his experts, Zabel quips, “I learned I’m glad I don’t have to have surgery in 1862.”

Yes, there are gruesome scenes in Mercy Street, he concedes, but it’s not all gore, all the time.

“There’s humor in this as well,” he says. “And, in each show, we focus on one medical centerpiece. In episode one, it’s ligature… In episode three, it’s amputation. Everything is done with the idea of advancing the character story. We don’t do it for spectacle.”

Zucker and Zabel took questions from the audience, including one from a retired doctor who wondered why a patient in a surgery scene was so still and calm, given the assumption that anesthetic was unavailable at the time.

“That’s actually a widely believed myth,” Zabel says. “They had chloroform and ether, and at a hospital like this one, or even in a battlefield hospital, you would’ve gotten anesthetic. There might have been cases on the battlefield, away from all that, where you wouldn’t, but the idea that you had to just bite down on a bullet just isn’t true.” 

Amanda Lowry, who is pursuing her MFA in Writing for the Stage and Screen, attended the panel and said she found the discussion fascinating, adding, that she came to learn more about Mercy Street, PBS’s first original programming in more than a decade.

“I’m very interested in how networks continue their brand,” she says. “And with PBS, I can see how well this historical drama works for them. I think it’s truly a great time for them to be doing this, especially with so much original programming out there. I’m glad to see they’re joining in.”

To see past episodes of Mercy Street, or to learn more about local air times, visit www.PBS.org.

By, Cara Lockwood