A new season of Mercy Street starts up on PBS Jan. 22, with more intriguing, and bloody, stories from a makeshift hospital during the American Civil War. After a six-episode first season, PBS will start rolling out six more episodes starting this Sunday.
Executive producers David Zabel and David Zucker say the project has its roots as a one-off docudrama about advances in the medical field in earlier times, but PBS’ executives wondered if the idea had legs as a dramatic series. While PBS has its share of imported British dramas—Victoria, Sherlock, Call the Midwife—it had not had a U.S.-based (and produced) drama in many years. The E.P.s say you’d have to go back to American Family, about a Hispanic family living in Los Angeles for an example. (I have a query in to PBS at presstime to confirm this.)
Originally developed at CBS, American Family, with Edward James Olmos as its patriarch, debuted on PBS in 2002 and ran for a second season too.
“PBS wanted something about American culture, that tackled American themes,” said Zucker of Mercy Street.
Mercy Street is produced Lone Wolf Media and Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions. The show is set in Alexandria, Virginia, and the fact that it’s shot in Richmond and Petersburg, Va., gives the series an extra splash of authenticity, the producers say.
Its relatively short run of episodes enables Mercy Street to land some cast members that otherwise might not be on board for a PBS period piece, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead (BrainDead, the next Fargo installment), Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), Gary Cole (Veep, Office Space) and Peter Gerety, who is in new Amazon drama Sneaky Pete.
Season one got off to a strong start, the premiere doing a 2.2 in Nielsen's overnights last January, better than the season three premiere of Sherlock.
Zabel describes the new season as an “even more concentrated effort to reflect the macrocosm of what was going on in the country in 1862,” including differing views on race and slavery, and a city seemingly smack in the middle of the Union-Confederate clash, and how “cataclysmic events” affect the characters.
The new season also features plenty of the medical developments—revolutionary at the time, pretty primitive now—that gave Mercy Street its start. “It’s how the doctors and nurses practiced medicine and approached war-time trauma,” said Zabel who, fittingly enough, used to be showrunner on ER.
Broadcasting & Cable Newsletter
The smarter way to stay on top of broadcasting and cable industry. Sign up below
Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.