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PBS Learning connects themes in Civil War drama to students lives today


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CivilWarAZHP

“Mercy Street,” a new Civil War-era drama produced in and around Richmond, Virginia, will debut on Arizona PBS on Sunday, Jan. 17, at 9 p.m.

PBS Digital is creating a comprehensive web experience to complement the “Mercy Street” broadcast. In addition to materials about the characters and the show episodes, the site will focus on the medical history presented in the series. Additionally, there will be special features covering various aspects of the production, from costume design to set dressing, with an eye to the series’ historical and social elements.

PBS LearningMedia will offer a range of materials designed to bring “Mercy Street” into classrooms around our nation including a series of student-facing videos that will explore ties between current events topics with roots in Civil War-era history, clips from “Mercy Street” and teacher-focused classroom support materials, such as background essays and lesson activities.

These resources will enable teachers to connect content covered in “Mercy Street” with curricular topics in Civil War-era history, and connect themes covered in the series to issues relevant to students’ lives today. For more information, visit az.pbslearningmedia.org.

“Mercy Street” will follow “Downton Abbey, The Final Season” on MASTERPIECE, highlighting Arizona PBS as a home for internationally acclaimed television drama. The series is executive produced by Ridley Scott (“Gladiator,” “Thelma and Louise”); David W. Zucker (“The Good Wife” and “The Man in the High Castle”) of Scott Free; Lisa Q. Wolfinger (“Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower”) and David Zabel (“ER”).

PBS Learning connects themes in Civil War drama to students lives today CivilWarAZITBased on real events, “Mercy Street” takes viewers beyond the battlefield and into the lives of Americans on the Civil War homefront as they face the unprecedented challenges of one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history.

Set in Virginia in the spring of 1862, “Mercy Street” follows the lives of two volunteer nurses on opposite sides of the conflict; Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a staunch New England abolitionist, and Emma Green (Hannah James), a naive young Confederate belle. The two collide at Mansion House, the Green family’s luxury hotel that has been taken over and transformed into a Union Army Hospital in Alexandria, a border town between North and South and the longest-occupied Confederate city of the war. Ruled under martial law, Alexandria is now the melting pot of the region, filled with civilians, female volunteers, doctors, soldiers (including the wounded of both sides), free blacks, enslaved and contraband (escaped slaves living behind Union lines) African Americans, prostitutes, speculators and spies.

The intersection of North and South within the confines of a small occupied town creates a world that is conflicted, corrupt, dynamic and even hopeful — within which these characters strive, fight, love, laugh, betray, sacrifice and, at times, act like scoundrels. This series is not centered around battlefield glory, but rather the drama and unexpected humor of everyday life behind the front lines, offering a fresh look at an iconic point in our history, with echoes of larger themes still relevant today.

“Our viewers have been anxiously anticipating the arrival of an American drama, and we at Arizona PBS are pleased to fulfill their request with this riveting new Civil War-centered series,” said associate general manager of content Nancy Southgate. “‘Mercy Street’ promises to bring the same blend of drama, romance and intrigue viewers have come to expect from series like ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Call the Midwife.’ We’re looking forward to sharing this engaging, historical and educational series with our viewers.”

The “Mercy Street” cast includes:

  • Mary Elizabeth Winstead (“The Returned,” “The Spectacular Now”) as nurse Mary Phinney, a feisty New England widow who is a newcomer at Mansion House Hospital.
  • Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother,” “Liberal Arts,” “Broadway’s Disgraced”) as Dr. Jedediah Foster, a civilian contract surgeon who grew up in a privileged slave-owning household as the son of a wealthy Maryland landowner.
  • Gary Cole (“Veep,” “The Good Wife,” “Entourage”) as James Green, Sr., patriarch of the Green family, struggling to maintain his family business while living in an occupied city.
  • Shalita Grant (“NCIS: New Orleans,” “Bones”) as Aurelia Johnson, a “contraband” (escaped slave living behind Union lines) working as a laundress at the hospital.
  • Peter Gerety (“Syriana,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Wire,” “Prime Suspect”) as Chief Surgeon Alfred Summers, a career Army surgeon who has risen to the rank of major by virtue of his age, not his skill.
  • L. Scott Caldwell (“Southland,” “Lost,” “ER,” “The Fugitive”) as Belinda, the Green family servant adjusting to life as a free woman.
  • Suzanne Bertish (“Rome”) as Hospital Matron Brannan, the Irish head nurse who sees and knows all at Mansion House.
  • And special guest star Cherry Jones as Dorthea Dix, known as “Miss Dix,” the formidable superintendent of Union Army nurses.

Based on both historical and composite characters, “Mercy Street” combines real and dramatized places and events as backdrops for an array of colliding storylines. The pair of nurses with opposite backgrounds and political persuasions opens a window into a world where the unprecedented medical demands create a chaotic atmosphere and challenge doctors, nurses and patients in new ways, while the pressures of Union occupation threaten to tear apart a proud Confederate family.

To ensure historical accuracy, the producers engaged an all-star team of advisors headed by noted historian James McPherson and including leading experts on Civil War medicine, military history, African American history, women in the Civil War era and more. Each script was vetted by the entire advisory team, many of whom were on set during the show’s filming in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia.

“‘Mercy Street’ is a story about love, war and medicine. Thematically, it’s about how the experience of war brings out the very best and worst in our characters. It’s also about the consequences of social upheaval: the war creates unique opportunities unthinkable just a few years before. Doctors are pushing the boundaries of medical science, women are leaving the confines of the home and volunteering as nurses, and thousands of escaped slaves are getting their first taste of freedom. All of these elements come together in Alexandria’s Mansion House Hospital. It’s a dysfunctional and unpredictable world filled with conflict and passion,” said co-creator Wolfinger.

The show also has deep roots in another of television’s longest running medical-themed shows due to the involvement of Zabel, former “ER” showrunner and writer of 45 of the NBC hit show’s episodes. “This is such a quintessentially American story that encompasses not only history, but also so many themes that are relevant today, issues like economic imbalance, racial struggles, the morality of war and medical progress,” said Zabel.

“What is so enticing and compelling about this material,” added co-executive producer Zucker, “is that you recognize the challenges these characters are facing. These are people who were trying to survive and find love, find purpose and find meaning in this turbulent time, and ‘Mercy Street’ brings audiences very much into the very heart of that world, and into the grit and the reality and sweat of these lives.”

“‘Mercy Street’ exemplifies the very best of what PBS has been, is and hopes to be,” said chief programming officer and general manager at PBS Beth Hoppe. “It speaks to our extraordinary track record of world-class dramatic and historical programming that both educates and entertains.”

“Mercy Street” producer David A. Rosemont has produced more than 45 films for almost every major television studio including ABC, NBC, CBS, Showtime, Lifetime, The History Channel, A&E, among others. Rosemont is best known for his work on the critically acclaimed “Door to Door” (Emmy Award for Best Picture, 2003), “Gifted Hands” starring Cuba Gooding Jr., and “America” starring Rosie O’Donnell. His recent credits include “In My Dreams” and “One Christmas Eve,” for the Hallmark Hall of Fame and ABC, respectively.

“Mercy Street” is rated TV-14 and was made possible by the Anne Ray Charitable Trust, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Virginia Tourism, Visit Alexandria and public television viewers.

About Arizona PBS
Arizona PBS is a trusted community resource. For over 52 years, the PBS station has focused on educating children, reporting in-depth on public affairs, fostering lifelong learning and celebrating arts and culture. Arizona PBS achieves its mission through the power of non-commercial television, the Internet, educational outreach and community-based initiatives. Its signal reaches 80 percent of the homes in Arizona. With more than 1 million viewers weekly, Arizona PBS consistently ranks among the most-viewed public television stations per capita in the country. For more information, visit azpbs.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest or Tumblr.

Arizona PBS is a member-supported community service of Arizona State University and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.