On Sunday night, the first original PBS drama for broadcast in 10 years, Mercy Street, hit the airwaves, hoping to coast off Downton Abbey as a lead-in. 3.3 million people tuned in for the programme, set in a hospital square in the centre of the drama in the US Civil War. Think Ken Burns crossed with Downton Abbey crossed with Grey’s Anatomy crossed with House, and you’ll be roughly on track. The result is rather a muddled mess of tropes and ponderous posturing, and it makes for rather a bit of a dull watch.
The premise: Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) arrives on the scene of Mansion House, a hospital facility providing treatment to casualties from both sides (as, it should be stressed, has been traditional with military hospitals for centuries, under ethical and later legal obligations to refuse to distinguish between patients). Though she’s been dispatched to serve as head nurse, she is clearly utterly unprepared, plunged headfirst into a situation she knows virtually nothing about — she’s afraid of blood and doesn’t know the first thing about hospital administration, personnel management, or basic patient care.
From the start, she’s drawn to Doctor Foster (Josh Radnor) and clashes with fellow nurse Anne Hastings (Tara Summers), a hoity-toity woman who swans about dispensing wisdom gleaned from her time in Crimea with Florence Nightingale. She’s expected to navigate the chaotic and depressing environment of a front-line hospital in the midst of a war, with only the crudest of medical treatments available, all while wearing corsets and a skirt. Oh, and there are some obligatory slaves in supporting roles (and at least one free man), along with the obligatory Southern Belle, Emma Green (Hannah James), who plays opposite her as her oppressive but naïve Confederate counterpart.
Unlike Downton Abbey, the show audiences have immediately started comparing it too, Mercy Street lacks crisp, funny, sly screenwriting that makes it a pleasure to watch. Instead, it’s heavy and clunky, with painful moralistic insertions — the earnest Nurse Mary pontificating on slavery, Emma discussing the righteousness of the Confederacy, Dr. Foster laying some history on it and reminding the viewer that the Civil War was about preserving the Union, not about freeing slaves. (Er, sorry if that’s a spoiler to anyone.) Rather than allowing the setting to speak for itself, the creative team feels the need to shove anachronistic feminism and other social justice movements into the story, and it’s both obvious and deeply unpleasant.
Yet, the show gets at something else that’s deep and important about US pop culture: An intense sense of nostalgia. People in the US often behave as though they are convinced that they have no history and culture of their own, turning to beg, borrow, and steal from others, which is why they have such a fetish for British costume dramas and other things about the Good Old Days of colonialism, but the US Civil War is all theirs, the jewel in the crown of US reminiscence and nostalgia. More important, in some ways, than the Revolutionary war, for one involves throwing off the colonial yoke, but the other involves a drama of ‘brother against brother,’ something people in the US find fascinating to this day.
Though the Civil War marked a truly horrific period in US history, one that was violent, destructive, and awful, it has become almost idealised through repeated iterations in pop culture — there’s a reason Gone With the Wind remains so iconic. There’s a glossy, smooth, shiny, glittering version of Civil War glamor that ignores the very real landscape of war along with what was at stake, and what follows. To believe Civil War dramas, the war consisted on pretty ladies in large hoop skirts dancing around soldiers elegantly draped on beds and quietly breathing their last. War is none of these things: It is huge, loud, smelly, revolting, messy, sprawling, dirty. Women in white dresses had no place in military hospitals and those muttonchop sleeves would have been saturated in blood, feces, and other filth within minutes.
War is not pretty.
In the North, there’s a nostalgia for smug righteousness, along with a convenient erasure of racist policies and structures that existed in Northern states at the time, including those surrounding the capture and return of escaped slaves. In some corners of the South, there’s a sense of being hard done by, hence the clinging to the flag of the Confederacy, though it’s not necessarily entirely about slavery — some Southerners bemoan the death of an entire way of life, pointing to the utter economic devastation experienced in the region during Reconstruction, an issue that went much deeper than liberation, though clearly slavery played an outsize role, and slavery made much of that way of life possible. The Black population of the US also has a great number of thoughts about the Civil War and broken promises, and most of those thoughts aren’t — and shouldn’t be — complimentary. Why any of these parties should effectively worship the war is inexplicable, but nonetheless, that’s exactly how it’s treated in pop culture.
People in the US tongue at their history like an irritating canker sore over and over again, like identifying a new angle on the subject will open avenues for entirely fresh pop culture exploration. There are only so many ways to tell the same story, however, and the Civil War has long since reached a sell-by date unless people want to explore truly interesting things about it that don’t make it to pop culture. Like the Black troops who fought in the war, especially Black women who led daring missions to free slaves. Or the women who concealed themselves amongst the troops to serve. Or the complicated queer politics among the officers and enlisted personnel who served on the front. A queered Civil War drama would be fascinating, but this ain’t it — in fact, brace for yet another heterosexuality-laced soapy hospital drama, because that’s basically what this is, only gussied up with some crinolines and ether.