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Reviewed by Will Harris
h, how I disliked the pilot for “Mercy” when I first watched it.
Granted, part of it was probably due to the fact that NBC, forced to fill a hole in its schedule when Maura Tierney’s cancer left “Parenthood” without a female lead, put two medical dramas on the air in September 2009. Once I’d watched “Trauma,” with all of its big-money accident sequences, “Mercy” was probably always going to seem quaint by comparison.
Looking back at my initial impressions of the show’s pilot, though, it’s clear that it was more than just a case of one series standing out more than the other.
“You'd think that getting bumped up to a fall premiere would be a good thing, but since the network had already put one medical show onto the docket, most people are rightfully wondering, ‘Isn't it overkill to add a second one?’ Yes, and it would've been even if ‘Mercy’ was any good...which it really isn't. There's a whole lot of chatter about how nurses deserve your respect. Of course they do. But they also deserve to be better presented on television than they are here.”
I followed up by suggesting that there wasn’t a single moment in the pilot worth citing as a legitimate highlight, then closed by stating point blank, “If you must watch only one medical drama on NBC this year, be sure it's ‘Trauma.’”
Clearly, I had some problems with the show.
Revisiting the pilot during my examination of “Mercy: The Complete Series” quickly reminded me why I felt the way I did: it’s woefully heavy-handed with its attempts to paint the nurses as the heroes of the hospital, with the storylines of its three main characters – nurses Veronica (Taylor Schilling), Sonia (Jamie Lee Kirchner), and Chloe (Michelle Trachtenberg) – steeped in melodrama. Still, more readers spoke the praises of “Mercy” than any other new series last season, so I was willing to give it a second chance once it hit DVD and see if things turned around for the series after the pilot. Turns out they did…but only sometimes.
Offering up a sketch of the Nursely Trio as they’re distinguished in the first few episodes is easy enough. Veronica’s back from Iraq but torn between her husband and the doctor with whom she had an affair while overseas, a situation made more awkward by the physician in question – Dr. Chris Sands (James Tupper) – finding himself a gig at Veronica’s stateside hospital. Sonia unabashedly flaunts her sexuality as she sashays down the hospital’s halls, looking for love and wondering if she might’ve found it in the form of a cop named Nick Valentino (Charlie Semine). And Chloe? She’s the new girl. Fresh out of nursing school, Chloe’s as green as they come, and that goes both for nursing as well as for life in general. Cue every “first time” storyline imaginable.
The real strength of “Mercy” is Trachtenberg, whose doe-eyed looks make her the perfect newbie, but the kid’s got spunk, too, and she manages to capably bounce between confidence and confusion wonderfully. More importantly, though, Chloe consistently comes across as likeable. The same can’t be said for Veronica, whose personality flaws make it hard to root for her even when she is trying to change herself, and Sonia, while not nearly as bad, often tends toward bad decisions that leave you shaking your head. Thankfully, there are other characters in the ensemble who are easier to embrace, like Angel Garcia (Guillermo Diaz), a fellow hospital employee who always manages to lighten the mood when he walks into a scene. In addition, Dr. Harris (James LeGros), who’s definitely not as bubbly as Angel (and, boy, is that an understatement), has such an enigmatic personality that he’s consistently interesting.
As a TV critic, though, the most frustrating part about “Mercy” is that its aspirations to reach beyond mere melodrama slip through just enough to piss you off that you’re not seeing them more. Take the show’s fifth episode, “You Lost Me with the Cinder Block,” which puts the spotlight on Dr. Harris by taking the one thing we know about his life outside the hospital, the one thing that humanizes him somewhat, and ripping it away from him. Or, later in the season, there’s “I Have a Date,” wherein Veronica’s first official date with her new beau – no spoilers as to who it is, just in case you haven’t seen it yet – ends up being postponed when she finds herself in the heart of a hostage crisis, one with a conclusion as strong as anything you may have seen on “ER.” But these are two episodes in the midst of 22. There are many solid moments to be found within the other 20 – look for particularly strong efforts from guest stars like Kelly Bishop, Michael Ian Black, and Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara playing husband and wife – but the consistency just isn’t there.
Throughout its run, “Mercy” struggled with an identity crisis, uncertain whether to focus on patients or practitioners, on life inside the hospital or out in the real world. Once James Van Der Beek joined the cast midway through the season, playing a doctor with a huge ego and a history with some seriously unsavory types, it felt like a Hail Mary to bring in viewers. It’s a shame it didn’t work – and not just because the show’s final episode was littered with uncompleted storylines: the second half of the season started to show some signs of creative life, most of which resulted from the events in “I Have a Date.” Makes you wonder, at least a little bit, what Season Two might’ve been like.
Special Features: Not bad for a single-season wonder, possibly because it was touch-and-go ‘til the bitter end as to whether or not the show would be renewed. Included in the set are audio commentaries, ten behind-the-scenes interviews with members of the cast, a gag reel, and Andrew Bernstein’s director’s cut of the series finale.