Underrated TV: NBC’s Mercy

August 3, 2010 at 7:57 pm (Review) (, , )

It’s a bold statement, but I’ll make it: NBC’s hospital drama Mercy was one of the best shows on television last season.

This isn’t, apparently, a very popular opinion. The show, which chronicled the lives of three friends working as nurses in a Jersey City hospital, had consistently low ratings and failed to be renewed for a second season — an especially disappointing state of affairs, since season one ended on a major cliffhanger. But the DVD boxset of the first season comes out this week, and I’d like to provide a handful of compelling reasons for picking it up, if you’ve got cash to spare.

1.) The cast. I decided to watch Mercy before I knew anything about the premise, simply because of the cast. Michelle Trachtenberg, best known as Dawn on Buffy, plays Chloe, the newest nurse in the hospital, and I’ve always been fond of her. Those who were annoyed by Dawn would be smart to give Trachtenberg a second chance, especially here, in her first truly mature role. (Where “mature” means “playing a responsible adult with a job,” not the few sex comedy roles she took to prove she wasn’t a little girl anymore.) Jamie Lee Kirchner, meanwhile, is an actress I was extremely impressed by when I saw her in Broadway’s RENT (as Mimi), and she’s fabulous here as Sonia, the protagonist’s best friend. I hadn’t previously heard of Taylor Schilling, the actress who plays the show’s main protagonist, Iraq veteran Veronica, but she turned out to be fantastic, and her mom is played by the always-amazing Kate Mulgrew. The ensemble is great, too — Guillermo Diaz as another nurse/friend of the protagonists, Diego Klattenhoff as Veronica’s husband, James Tupper as Veronica’s wartime fling, and James LeGros as an arrogant doctor. If you can stand James Van Der Beek’s role as an antagonist in the later episodes of the series, the cast is pretty much perfect.

2.) The feminism. What impressed me most about Mercy, from day one, was the way it was structured around three women who were actually believable friends, rather than catty, backstabbing rivals. The show always passed the Bechdel Test as the women talked to each other about work, about their families, about their hobbies, and, yes, about the men in their lives. And while romantic plots existed (and were hit-or-miss), they were never the focus of the show. Unlike the characters on Grey’s Anatomy, these characters never seemed to be spending time talking about their sex lives when they could have been treating patients — they saved that for the bar after work. Mercy is a show about nurses doing their jobs, and while I can’t comment on the accuracy of the medicine, I always appreciated that the show never implied that nurses were in any way “lesser” than doctors. In fact, the show reminds us, they’re the ones who really do the hard work.

3.) The protagonist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a protagonist like Veronica Callahan. First and foremost, she’s a female war veteran with very obvious, and acknowledged, post-traumatic stress disorder. She may have been primarily on the medical side of the war, but the show acknowledges that even those in the “safer” jobs in the military are under enormous amounts of stress and danger in such unpredictable battlefields. Veronica is a mess — she has flashbacks and fears, she has a temper that gets her in trouble, and she’s an alcoholic on top of everything else — but she’s also strong-willed, stubborn, and determined to do her job. Her love triangle plot, while handled better than it would be on most shows, is almost a disappointment, simply because it’s the least interesting part of her character. The much more interesting narrative is that of a young woman trying to make a place for herself in the world after trauma, and luckily that’s the narrative the show focuses on.

4.) The sense of place. Mercy is set in Jersey City, a major city in my own home state, so I feel qualified to say that the way in which the show uses its location is more akin to shows like Homicide: Life on the Street or New York cop shows than to medical dramas like last season’s abysmal Pittsburgh-set Three Rivers or House (which exists in a Princeton, New Jersey I don’t recognize at all, as a 4-year resident of the town). The Jersey City of Mercy feels absolutely real and absolutely integral to the plot, from the race and class tensions to Veronica’s Irish-American cultural identity to the bars they hang out at after work. While others might not have the same feeling of identification with the setting, anyone can appreciate the show’s strong sense of place, which only serves to make the universe richer and more believable.

5.) The stories. While Mercy does have a tendency to dip into melodrama, its stories are, on the whole, tight and compelling. While Veronica is clearly the protagonist, Chloe and Sonia both get clear arcs over the course of the season and important stories to themselves, and the ensemble is always well-used. (And diverse — Guillermo Diaz has great scenes as a gay, Hispanic male nurse, and Malaysian actress K.K. Moggie does an excellent job as an initially unsympathetic doctor whose layers emerge as she interacts with the other characters.) The medical plots are, I’m sure, as inaccurate as any TV medicine, but the emotional moments with the patients always feel earned, rather than hokey or a little too conveniently related to the characters’ personal dramas. Because the focus is placed so much on the fact that the characters are nurses, those stories serve as character moments in and of themselves, instead of as manipulative parallels.

If anything I’ve talked about piques your interest, I highly suggest checking out the first season on DVD. You can find it here on Amazon or in any local retailer. I doubt DVD sales will rescusitate the show, but if just a few more people got to experience the joy that is season one, I’ll consider my advertisement a success.


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