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GUEST BLOG #66: Ed Martin Bestows Mercy Upon NBC's "Mercy"
December 9, 2009  | By Ed Martin

[With all my Smothers distractions, some pieces by the other regular TVWW contributors have been piling up like airplanes approaching LaGuardia. Here's one by contributing critic Ed Martin, coming to the defense of NBC's Mercy, which airs tonight at 8 ET...]

mercy-762848.jpgStanding Apart From the Critical Pack -- Proudly

By Ed Martin

Speaking as a television critic, it's always interesting to find yourself on the opposite side of the fence from the majority of your peers. What do you see or not see that they perceive in so different a light?

I'm not just standing on the other side of the fence -- I'm way over on the other side of the field -- in my appreciation of NBC's Mercy, a soap operatic medical drama about the hard-working nurses and doctors who toil at an inner-city New Jersey hospital. Mercy may not be as bold as Showtime's Nurse Jackie or as hefty as ABC's Grey's Anatomy, to name the two most obvious genre comparisons, but it isn't so bad as to warrant so little attention in the media.

Granted, the 2009-10 fall season has delivered a particularly strong group of new broadcast series, including ABC's Modern Family, The Middle, Cougar Town, FlashForward and V; Fox's Glee; CBS's The Good Wife; and The CW's The Vampire Diaries, so there may not be a lot of enthusiasm left for a show that sounds like (but is most definitely not) a low-rent Grey's clone.

Maybe critics just wrote it off after watching its mediocre pilot. I suspect that many of them are smarting over the fact that they singled out Community as the NBC freshman most likely to survive and thrive, only to sit back and watch the audience reject it, while they mostly dismissed Mercy as stale junk food.

If that's what they were thinking, they were wrong. Mercy is more like fresh comfort food, which likely explains its status as NBC's most successful new series here at the end of what has been a very trying year for everyone. The characters on its canvas are not only easy to take, they're easy to like, something that can't be said about many of the self-absorbed, silly talkers over at critics' fave Grey's.

What's more, Mercy will likely always be remembered as the program that launched the career of Taylor Schilling, the highly watchable young actress who plays Veronica Callahan, the nurse around whom much of the drama revolves.

Thankfully, there is no McSteamy or McDreamy nonsense at no-frills Mercy Hospital, though there is a handsome doctor named Chris Sands (played by James Tupper of Men in Trees), fresh off a tour in Iraq during which he met and enjoyed a brief affair with Veronica, only to end up working at the same hospital as she when they both returned to the States.

That wouldn't be nearly so dramatic a set-up were Veronica not married to a very regular guy named Mike (Diego Klattenhoff, another star on the rise) who is none too pleased that his wife cheated on him, even if she was in a war zone at the time and perhaps not acting like her normal self. All three characters in this emotional triangle have grown increasingly sympathetic as the season has progressed.


The rest of the Mercy cast is similarly likeable, especially Michelle Trachtenberg as naive Chloe Payne, a newbie nurse who's all heart, if somewhat unbelievably clueless about certain things (like expecting to be taken seriously after wearing Hello Kitty smocks to work). I've always felt that Trachtenberg came on too strong as cloying supernatural construct Dawn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I find her annoying in her recurring Gossip Girl role of rich witch Georgina Sparks. But I enjoy watching her balance the twin pressures Chloe faces as she tries to build both a grown-up career and an adult personal life, often flailing or failing at both but never growing cold or cynical in the face of multiple defeats.

Strikingly beautiful newcomer Jaime Lee Kirchner as Sonia Jimenez, the other nurse at the center of the Mercy drama, is yet another talent to watch. Dealing with problems at the hospital or navigating her rocky love life, Sonia is about as subtle as a jackhammer, and she can be difficult to care about except when she is caring about others. She is currently dating a young police officer named Nick (Charlie Semine) who is perfect for her, all tough on the outside but a sensitive soul underneath his law enforcement exterior. In fact, Sonia and Nick are so great together that I fear the writers will plot to have Nick killed in the line of duty. Like I said, Mercy can be very soap-operatic.

I'll admit, the stories on Mercy haven't exactly been groundbreakers, but they've been perfectly satisfying, with nice (if sometimes predictable) emotional payoffs throughout. Mercifully (no pun intended), the November sweeps period has passed without one of those mad-crazy sweeps stunts that have so grievously compromised Grey's over the years (the ferry boat crash, Meredith's extended death, Denny's ghost, etc., etc. and so forth).

Perhaps it's the simplicity of those stories, but it isn't difficult to understand the motivations of any of the characters on the Mercy canvas, a frustrating glitch over on the otherwise stellar Nurse Jackie. (I still can't figure out why the title character takes as many drugs as she does, especially with two beautiful little children at home, or why she has a lover on the side when she's married to the greatest guy on earth.) But what I like best about Mercy is that everything about it looks so real, due in large part to the fact that it is actually filmed in New Jersey. It seems unlikely that the perfectly ordinary Mercy Hospital will ever be known as a sterling showplace for state of the art medical technology and contemporary architecture, like Seattle Grace or the title institution in CBS's perfectly dreadful Three Rivers.

Mercy works as lightweight entertainment, but I'll give it props for its timely relevance, too, in that Veronica (and, to a lesser extent, Sands) is having a tough time fully integrating into civilian life after experiencing the unspeakable horrors of Iraq. Also, and of even more importance, it's clear that the hospital in which she works could use a bailout or two.

Given the current collision of our declining economy with our eroding health care system and the fact that millions of Americans are suffering as a result -- including those who are paying a small fortune for medical insurance and are still having difficulties -- it would be impossible to believe the storytelling in any contemporary medical drama that did not keep economic challenges faced by hospital employees and their patients alike at its center.



Ed Martin is the television critic and programming analyst for the media industry Web site JackMyers.com. The former senior editor of the award-winning, much-missed television and advertising trade magazine Inside Media, Ed has also written for USA Today, Advertising Age, Television Week, Broadcasting & Cable and TV Guide.







Tausif Khan said:

How does Mercy compare to the complexity of Scrubs? Undoubtedly, Scrubs is a comedy but has tremendous character development and some of the most depressing scenes on television (Cox's three patients dying due to transplanted organs infected with rabies and Cox losing his brother-in-law).

Comment posted on December 9, 2009 7:31 PM

Diane Holloway said:

For the record, Ed, I like it too! In fact I'm watching it right now!

Comment posted on December 9, 2009 8:29 PM

hoppy said:

Thanks. Finally someone realized how good this show is.

Comment posted on December 10, 2009 1:46 PM

Allan said:

Right now Mercy is my favourite new show of the year. I think Taylor Schilling, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Jamie Lee Kirchner are three very talented actresses who aren't getting enough credit for there work on the show. I also think the show is getting better each week. Let's hope NBC does the right thing and gives Mercy a second season.

Comment posted on December 13, 2009 4:57 PM

Shannon said:

Well said. I wish Mercy were renewed. I miss it terribly. I loved the characters. I loved the actors and actresses. I loved the stories. I've never been a fan of any hospital drama, but I loved this from day 1.

Comment posted on September 20, 2010 4:41 PM
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