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With 'Mercy Street,' PBS Mounts First Home-Made Drama in 13 Years
November 11, 2015  | By Tom Brinkmoeller

Once it seemed that any drama on PBS came with a British accent, including the recent notables Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife.

Now, after an extended absence of 13 years, American-made drama returns to the network January 17 with Mercy Street, a six-part Civil War era miniseries. (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor, top, below. Co-stars incude Gary Cole, Cherry Jones and Peter Gerety.)

It's an ambitious return, including a planned second season, and a dramatic production of a best-selling history of early New York.

The original production, by an A-list group of established pros, is set in a Union-occupied city in Virginia. It focuses on nurses, doctors and others from both sides of the conflict overwhelmed by the sick and wounded.

The last American-made drama on PBS was January 2002, American Family. It focused on Latinos and came to PBS after CBS apparently got cold feet. (David Bianculli's story at the time chronicled what turned out to be the last in a spare but extraordinary history of PBS-originated drama.)

Other well-received domestic ventures have included the Mystery programs (early 2000s), an I'll Fly Away concluding movie after the series was kicked off a commercial network (1993), American Playhouse ('80s and '90s) and Adams Chronicles (1976).

Mercy Street producer Lisa Q. Wolfinger originally wanted to do as a documentary a "Civil War story that had never been told" about the flowering of medical science during the war.

Previously she had worked with Beth Hoppe, PBS Chief Programming Officer and General Manager, General Audience Programming, on the documentary Desperate Crossing, The Untold Story of the Mayflower. Hoppe said, "Why don't you go the next step and think of it as an episodic drama?" .

In a separate interview, Hoppe said that she loved the idea of telling the story of medical advances made under the pressure of war.

Another producer, David Zabel, brought needed experience from producing ER, the mid-'90s series. Other producers include Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise) and David W. Zucker (The Good Wife).

Budget woes, a public TV constant, were partly solved by selling international rights and securing foundation and non-corporate underwriting.

Hoppe is hopeful that other similar projects will follow. PBS, she said in a telephone interview, is in "early days" development of a dramatic production of The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto's best-selling 2004 book about the Dutch settlement of Manhattan.

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