What Does Underground’s Success Mean?

14 months ago, I wondered what the failure of Amazon’s Civil War drama series, Point of Honor, meant for the Civil War in popular culture. I worried audiences didn’t reject the show because it was objectively terrible but because they just weren’t interested in the Civil War. I saw promising signs in Hollywood—with Free State of Jones being adapted for the screen (coming this June!)—but it looked like the Civil War Era and my television weren’t going to be friends anytime soon. It wasn’t long before I heard about Mercy Street and things started looking up. Then came news the History [Channel] was remaking Roots. The jury’s still out on Roots, but Mercy Street was a solid, if slightly disappointing, stab at serialized Civil War fiction. Throughout, Underground was completely off my radar. WGN’s bold slave resistance drama seemed to come out of nowhere and turned out to be one of the best (maybe the best) depictions of the Civil War Era on TV. What Underground achieved  demonstrates how rethinking what “Civil War popular culture” means can draw new audiences and make for riveting, smart, and original entertainment. Read More

Rosalee is the Female Character Slavery Fiction Needs

I haven’t written a full review of Underground because I’m still two weeks behind the series. It feels a little odd to write about it with an incomplete picture, but after watching the third episode, “The Lord’s Day,” last night, I was struck by what a great historical and dramatic character the show has in its co-protagonist, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Her arc in this episode is especially encouraging because it not only breaks with some bad habits in fictional portrayals of enslaved women, it also reflects the show’s overall success in avoiding cliches that often plague these kinds of stories. Read More

Entry 28 (Part 4): Autopsying Mercy Street

Mercy Street. “The Diabolical Plot,” Season 1, Episode 6. Directed by Jeremy Webb. Written by Lisa Wolfinger, David Zabel, and Jason Richman.

Release Date: February 21, 2016.

I don’t think historians or critics ever reached a consensus on Mercy Street. This is probably a good sign. It means the show was at least interesting. I generally enjoyed it but, even when I didn’t, the history was solid enough that viewers at least learned something. Yesterday’s finale generally followed this pattern, despite its fictional inclusion of Booth and Lincoln. The eponymous “Diabolical Plot” didn’t really grip me, but the episode had enough solid dramatic and historical moments to keep away the sour taste in my mouth I’d been afraid of since the storyline originally leaked. That allowed me to be objective in my evaluation of Mercy Street as a whole, and my final take is generally positive. Read More

Entry 28 (Part 3): A Ball, a Lynching, and a Prostitute

Mercy Street, “The Belle Alliance” & “The Dead Room,” Season 1, Episodes 4 & 5. Directed by Jeremy Webb. Written by Lisa Wolfinger, David Zabel, Jason Richman, and Rob Hanning.

Release Dates: February 7 & 14, 2016.

We’re in the home stretch with Mercy Street and I think it’s safe to say the show won’t live up to the potential I envisioned before its premiere or the high bar set by “The Uniform.” I can say this because the last episode will finally deliver the fake Abraham Lincoln assassination plot (horribly foreshadowed at the end of “The Dead Room”) that historians have been dreading. The show still has its moments and there’s a very good Civil War drama lurking just under the surface, but something’s keeping this show from clicking with me and—if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are to be believed—lots of other historians. Read More

Entry 28 (Part 2): Settling Into Mercy Street

Mercy Street, “The Haversack” & “The Uniform,” Season 1, Episodes 2 & 3. Directed by Roxann Dawson. Written by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel.

Release Dates: January 24 & 31, 2016.

So, we’re halfway through Mercy Street and I’m still not sure how I feel about the show. This is partially because I think it’s trying to do too many things, and this inevitably makes it a little uneven. The history remains impressively solid and the lead performances are getting stronger (particularly Winstead and Radnor), but the production is still struggling to find the right tone. This is especially evident in the second episode, “The Haversack,” which veers wildly from almost whimsical comedy to harsh realism. “The Uniform” is much better on all counts and ranks as the best episode so far. Hopefully, this is a sign that Mercy Street has found its groove and realized the potential that peeked through in its first two offerings. Read More

Entry 28 (Part 1): Getting to Know Mercy Street

Mercy Street, “The New Nurse,” Season 1, Episode 1. Directed by Roxann Dawson. Written by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel.

Release Date: January 17, 2016.

We’re finally getting fully introduced to Mercy Street this week and I’m not sure how to feel about it. Unlike some other reviewers, I haven’t seen all 6 episodes, so my thoughts here are only based on the premiere, “The New Nurse.” There are certainly some promising aspects but the episode didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped. The good news is the history’s pretty solid, which isn’t surprising given the list of historical consultants. The bad news is it played a little flat.  Read More

Dreaming of Mercy Street

MercyStreetPosterwSawbone

2016’s slate of original high-profile Civil War entertainment keeps coming fast and furious, with PBS’s Mercy Street starting Sunday. About this time last year, I shared my plan to review Point of Honor on an episode-by-episode basis if Amazon picked it up. Fortunately, that didn’t happen (although, in all honesty, writing more reviews would have been fun given how terrible it was), but Mercy Street is a different animal. PBS is running the series in 6 parts over 6 weeks. I think reviewing each episode separately is a little much for all of us (I might rip off the AV Club a lot here, but I don’t have to copy everything they do), so the plan is to review the first episode, then do the next four in pairs, with a wrap-up for the finale. I had high hopes for the series months ago, but the recent promo press and Twitter comments have made me even more optimistic, so I think it’s worth almost entirely turning the blog over to it until March. As always, I’m very curious to hear your opinions, so feel free to sound off in the comments.

PS – Speaking of 2016’s Civil War entertainment, we got our first trailer for The Free State of Jones last week. I’m sure most of you have already seen it but, as with Mercy Street, my expectations for this movie just keep getting higher.

Are Things Looking Up for the Civil War on TV?

Mercy Street PBS Cast

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor in Mercy Street.

Two months ago, I rejoiced that Amazon users did not greenlight Point of Honor. On the other hand, I wondered if the reason had less to do with the show’s crappiness and more to do with a general lack of interest in the Civil War from TV audiences. Surveying the scene now, it looks like producers don’t share my concerns. No less than three major networks are developing projects dealing with some aspect of the Civil War era. I have some reservations but the fact this is happening at all–and on the heels of the sesquicentennial, when one would expect Civil War fatigue–seems like a win. Read More