I’m proud to present a guest column from a fellow TV aficionado. Anya has been raving about NBC’s Mercy. I dismissed it this fall when I reviewed it, saying it had nothing new to offer. And starring an actress that I don’t much care for. Anya tells me that I’m wrong and haven’t given the show a fair shake. She had this to say about last week’s episode:
I keep waiting for my shows to surprise me.
And I keep having my heart broken.
But Mercy swept me off my feet last night with “I Have a Date,” giving me a dramatic cliffhanger that at the very least made me go, “Whaaaaat?”
Mercy crept into my line-up last fall during one of my I’m-bored-surf-my-way-through-Hulu moments (for more gold search for Wine for the Confused, The Rage in Placid Lake, and Mr. Fix-It. While I recoiled at the presence of Michelle Trachtenberg (Nurse Chloe Payne), the pilot proved good enough to overcome it, and ultimately, Chloe has become a lovable, un-obnoxious character.
Now I know CJ Cregg came down hard on this show, and Mr. Feeny has posted some less-than-favorable predictions about this seeming med-drama. It’s time for a different take:
Mercy is about Regular People working in a hospital. Clearly this is far from factual, but that’s really what they’re going for, and I think they’re doing what Roseanne Barr did to the sitcom to the medical dramedy. Roseanne never perfectly resembled the working class family. In its early years the show conformed largely to the contained-episode format and everyone was far too emotionally healthy at the end of each episode. In its later years it was just WEIRD.
So too with Mercy. CJ pointed it out. The actors are obv. not as pretty as the Grey’s Anatomy cast. The show acknowledges that “hey, these are working class nurses and regular doctors,” maybe they wouldn’t be total babes complete with polish. Yet Veronica (Taylor Schilling), Sonia (Jaime Lee Kirchner), Dr. Chris Sands (James Tupper), and even cutesy Ms. Trachtenberg are all, statistically, unrealistically attractive. And I’m good with that. Because…
…the show is playing at reality. It plays with the idea that maybe not everyone on TV will have TV lives. I have found that I like seeing nurses who live with their alcoholic parents because they have PTSD from the war or are nervous about their cop boyfriends’ guns because of the violence present in their neighborhoods growing up. We can look to Eric Foreman and his kind with his storied coming-of-age in the urban working class that House is so desperate to discover. In the end, though, that’s something Foreman has overcome because he’s a boot-straps kinda fella, and that M.D. made his troubled past a fringe storyline in his day-to-day. Veronica comes home to a sloppy row house populated with a sloppy mother (brilliantly portrayed by the eminent Kate Mulgrew—poor acting indeed, CJ) and an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. Not to mention her tiny, sloppy bedroom and sloppy closet. The spit and polish of your average drama has vanished. Indeed, the Flanagan home makes the Desperate Housewives Scavo chaos look way too thought-out. The Flanagans appear to LIVE where they live.
Obviously to sustain the necessary drama the reality is far from realistic. Miracles happen every day at Mercy Hospital. As do murders. Estranged husbands win jackpots on vision quests in Atlantic City and hunky firemen turn out to be cheating low-lifes with vengeful, Jersey wives (oh wait, that part’s real, isn’t it?). Yet it’s always clear that everyone has money troubles, even the doctors; that life just isn’t easy, even when patients are waking up from ten year comas; and that distant wars aren’t just romantic fodder for daily drama. Indeed, this is the realest part of the show: Veronica and Chris joined the service to pay for their schooling and the careers they currently have. Veronica in particular comes from a class in which young people more often need to serve if they are ever to get anywhere in life.
I’ll give it to CJ that the pilot had trouble spots, but the writing in general is quite clever and relatable. The characters?
Veronica is a pain-in-the-ass, but somehow you end up loving her. You love her fight, her desperation, her sass, and her pain. You really love it when she realizes what a bitch she is. All of this is counterbalanced, though, by her compassion for her patients and her fervent drive to do the best for them. And she does it capably.
Sonia has a hard edge that the show chips away at to see what else is inside. She is passionate and giving when it comes to her friends and her patients but guarded when it comes to her boyfriend. Is there trauma there? Probably, but the show mostly lets us see her as someone who has lived in the world too long to be romantic. Yet we see her sensitivity rise to the surface in each episode, and we see how gifted she is in working with patients.
And Chloe. CJ said she could do without seeing her grow from naïve-to-not. Well, the naïveté is still there, but Chloe is no Dawn Summers. She is a capable nurse who offers as much wisdom as she gives, and while she allows herself to be guided (and often misguided) by Veronica and Sonia, she also takes care of herself in astonishing and empowering ways. (I think I’m realizing that Chloe may be my favorite—next to sassy sidekick Angel.) You love Chloe when, during a gossip-fest in Veronica’s room, she screams, “My patient almost died! You can’t take my patient off life support just to give it to your patient who has less than a 1% chance! You just don’t do that! You do things all time like…you just do whatever you want! You just don’t think about other people…it’s VERY FRUSTRATING!” If someone’s going to give Veronica a talking to, it’s probably going to be Chloe.
So how did Mercy knock it out of the park last night? Here come the SPOILERS.
It begins with so much ado about Valentine’s Day. And everyone is so happy, so looking forward to the evening that it’s clear things are going to go horribly wrong.
The darkness begins when Chloe’s cancer patient passes away, and Angel (Guillermo Diaz) decides she needs a break. Something about nurses on breaks bothers the newly arrived Dr. Briggs (James van der Beek…seriously?), and he gets them sent to the ER where the nurses at the desk sit behind bullet-proof glass (another slice of actual reality). After some initial trepidation, Chloe proves herself by extracting a bowling pin from a patient (extracting it from WHERE you ask? Watch to find out). When she and Angel get the opportunity to sit in “the cage,” a patient freak-out causes the waiting room to clear, and they see that a huge man is beating the life out of another patient. Security is nowhere to be found, and the nurses can only watch in horror. That’s when Chloe, naïve and brave, runs into the waiting room bearing a metal rod, set on saving the day. She’s knocked to the ground, and Angel drags her back into the cage while the security guards subdue the attacker. One is seriously wounded in the process, and Chloe and Angel help save his life. She comes out the other end changed and discards her princessy, floral smock.
And meanwhile you’re convinced that Veronica and Sonia are only up to relationship drama for the evening.
Veronica desperately wants to wear a particular dress on her date with Chris, but her mother took it to the dry cleaner’s. Thus begins the action. She stops at a donut shop on her way to the restaurant to change into the dress and spray her “pasty legs” with spray tan (because she just can’t wear hose as her mother suggests!) During the spray process, she hears a gunshot. She waits for a moment then rushes out of the bathroom to find the cashier on the floor with a leg wound. The robber discovers her treating the wound and forces her to help him open the store safe.
This is, of course, where you just KNOW that PTSD is going to be a problem here. I was expecting her to be trembling in fetal position by the end of the episode and unable to connect with anyone, including her newly regained boyfriend Dr. Sands. Instead, Veronica is astonishingly calm throughout. We see the cashier die, and as the frazzled robber shakes her and desperately tries to wake her up, he throws Veronica to the floor. There she discovers a gun secured under the counter. She grabs it, and as the robber turns around with his gun raised, Veronica fires five shots into his chest.
This moment is stunning. She rises with this empty look on her face, and as though in a trance she calls in “the double run” to dispatch. It’s eerie how mechanically she states that the paramedics will find a female with “wounds to the femoral artery” who “exsanguinated over four liters of blood” and “male, multiple gunshot wounds to the torso.” Yet I still expect her to collapse to the floor, grab her knees, and start shaking.
The dispatcher says, “Stay with me now,” as Veronica calmly hangs up the phone. Her party dress splattered with blood and her shoes in her hand, she walks out the door into the cold. Barefoot. Cut to black.
I practically yelled I was so shocked. Finally I had what I wanted: a shocking turn from television. I have to wait until after the Olympics for a resolution (good job, NBC).
Mercy wasn’t very shiny when it started in September, but its relatability, both in its characters and its stories, have kept it going strong and have left me hoping hard for Veronica, as much as she may be a self-centered pain-in-the-ass.
Catch Mercy Wednesday nights at 8e/7c on NBC or catch up with the whole series on Hulu!