January 24, 2016

Mercy Street: "The New Nurse"

Mercy Street, a new scripted drama on PBS, sets out to tell an untold story of the Civil War.  In a makeshift hospital in the Union occupied Southern city of Alexandria, Virginia, doctors and nurses tend to the wounded soldiers - from both sides - at a time when and in a place where efficiency was prized over quality of care. Around every corner we see an amputee, and morphine is still "experimental."

Here, doctors and nurses, rather than soldiers, are the war's voice. But the series uses cinematography, as much as its characters, to tell the story. This is especially evident in the deliberate use of color and light to enhance the mood. In one scene, young Southern belle Emma (Hannah James) glides through a filthy brown alley in a billowing white gown, matching parasol extended above her. Her clean dress symbolically shows us her innocence. As you might expect from a PBS drama, the costumes and sets are exquisite, and they serve to show the audience what the characters see.

Southern Belle Emma Green (Hannah James).
Source: pbs.org
Similarly, the script endeavors to tell the audience what the characters believe. We are offered pithy explanations of the social mores of the time: "Men fight and women pray." And arguments surrounding complex questions about what lies at the root of the war: "Pardon me, but aren't we fighting to free men of color? Isn't that what this war is about?" asks one character. "No, it's about preserving the Republic. Even Lincoln says so," responds another.

Of course, history is written by the victors, and no 21st century retelling of the War Between the States can escape the knowledge of a Northern victory, nor the moral rightness of the abolitionists. But from its first episode,  Mercy Street takes pains to present sympathetic characters from both the North and South. Likewise, there are villains on both sides. For example, smarmy Dr. Byron Hale (Norbert Leo Butz) may be a Union man, but he's not a man who's side you'd otherwise take. The series presents Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the titular "new nurse," as de-facto heroine, and our eyes through the episode. She fancies herself an enlightened abolitionist, but even she is hesitant to allow the free black man Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III) to tend to a dying Union soldier, despite the fact that Diggs has the expertise to save the man's life.

Dr. Foster (Radnor) confronts Nurse Mary (Winstead).
Source: pbs.org
It is through Mary, then, that we as an audience are pre-emptively chastised for our preconceptions of right and wrong. Mary is loath to treat the Confederate soldiers, who she sees only as adversary. "Are there no sinning Yankees in these beds?" Emma asks her, "Atrocities are only ever committed by the enemy?" Mary tells Dr. Jedediah Foster that she finds his views on race "unenlightened." But this Union doctor, who grew up on a slave-holding plantation, finds her treatment of the Confederate soldiers equally offensive. "Blood is not gray or blue, madam. It is all one color." "The New Nurse" makes it clear that Mercy Street will not shy away from issues of race, but I expect it will address them within the complex socio-political context of the 1860s.

Speaking of Dr. Foster, I will admit that it was the screenshot of a bearded Josh Radnor that drew me to this show. How would this How I Met Your Mother alum fare in an historical drama, I wondered? Turns out, he fares quite well. Perhaps not at first, but with a second viewing of the episode, I realized with some amount of surprise that thoughts of HIMYM had left my head. Dr. Foster has all the sincerity but none of the naïveté of Ted Mosby. Moreover, if Mercy Street makes time for romance, Radnor is a ready made leading man.

The show's pace is steady and deliberate. It gives both the viewer and the characters a chance to reflect on what's happening inside the hospital walls. It is at once tender, as in the scene where Mary takes down a letter dictated by a 15-year-old soldier to his mother and sisters, and tragic, as in the scene where that same soldier dies, still clinging to the flag he promised his father he'd not let touch the ground. As if to emphasize the futility of war, a bugle plays the young boy a funeral dirge while soldiers outside the window celebrate a victory on the battlefield.

The six-part series Mercy Street airs Sunday nights at 10 PM on PBS.

January 23, 2016

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: How a quirky, irreverent, musical comedy became my favorite new show of the year

Back when the new fall shows were premiering, I wrote about Supergirl. Since that first episode, though, I've had to catch Kara online later in the week. That's because on Monday nights at 8, my rabbit ears have been tuned to the CW, to take a trip to West Covina, California with a crazy character named Rebecca Bunch.

Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) sings the praises of West Covina, California on the CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Source: cwtv.com
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a critically acclaimed little gem, but it hasn't gained the ratings it deserves. The first episode left me wondering where Rachel Bloom has been hiding. (Apparently, the answer is YouTube.) Bloom has created one of the most original shows to hit network TV in a long time. It's unfair to simplify this show to a one sentence summary, but here goes: Successful lawyer Rebecca Bunch gives up her career in New York City to move to West Covina, California, the hometown of her one-time summer-camp-boyfriend, for, she will assure you, completely unrelated reasons.

If you haven't seen the show, and you hear that it's a network TV musical, you probably have an idea in your head. Throw that idea out. This show is not Glee. It's not Smash. It's not Nashville. Particularly in its musical numbers, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend delivers perfectly timed - and timely - satire. Yes, it's irreverent and explicit. But it's also colorful and weird. Even better though, it's smart. And it expects its viewer to be smart, too. The show doesn't explain its jokes, and it won't give you extra time to get them before it's on to the next bit. 

In an few interviews, Bloom has said that the theme of the first season is "The lies we tell ourselves." Yes, the characters are a little delusional. Perhaps that's why there's not really a villain. There doesn't need to be. After all, we are our own worst enemy.  There's a moment in the pilot where you think that Paula is out to get Rebecca; turns out she's just a really stalkerish sidekick, brilliantly portrayed by Donna Lynne Champlin.

But of course, that doesn't mean the characters are shallow. Quite the opposite. With the exception of Rebecca's ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend Valencia, West Covina is populated with multi-dimensional people who are, sadly, relatable. These characters may be lying to themselves, but if we're being unreservedly honest, their flaws are just exaggerations of ours. They make all the worst mistakes we've ever entertained.

Greg is as close as this show gets to a comedic straight man. He's played by Santino Fontana, who voiced Hans in Disney's Frozen, which isn't often publicized, I imagine, because there isn't a demographic crossover in viewership. (Give it a couple years, though.) Anyway, Greg's musical numbers have been my favorite so far, and the season's best moment was undoubtedly his song and dance duet with Rebecca, "Settle for Me."

When I first started watching the show, I told friends that even if Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gets cancelled, I'd rather have a few episodes of this gem of a show than none at all. After a spring episode order, and a win for Bloom at the Golden Globes, it looks like I have little to worry about. Mark Pedowitz, president of the network, recently heaped praise upon Crazy Ex, and suggested it might be one of those shows that defies the odds. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, with the knowledge that the Cancel Bear isn't always right, and that there was once another oddball show that the CW gave a shot, and because of that, two comedy actresses from the network earned Globes. Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have started a trend that I can only hope continues: smart, innovative shows being given a chance on the only channel that seems to value quality over popularity: The CW.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is BACK this Monday night at 8 PM.