TV Review: NBC’s ‘Mercy’

09.22.09 8 years ago 4 Comments


In Kevin Smith’s “Clerks,” the main character, Dante, faces a chaotic day of minimum wage employment with a simple mantra: “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”

I’d expect “Mercy” creator Liz Heldens to have a similar reaction when she scans the reviews for her new NBC nursing drama.

“I’m not even supposed to be here today.”

“Mercy” wasn’t even supposed to be on tomorrow. Although it’ll premiere on Wednesday (Sept. 23), “Mercy” was supposed to be a midseason show, but it got rushed into the fall when NBC had to unavoidably postpone “Parenthood.” While “Parenthood” was supposed to be one of the anchors of NBC’s fall, due to its recognizable stars and recognizable premiere, “Mercy” is going to get pilloried for its own recognizable premise.

If “Mercy” had waited and launched in January, it wouldn’t have suddenly been a good show. It still would have been corny and derivative and hampered by tone problems and clunky dialogue. But at least it wouldn’t have been near-mandatory for every critic in the land to whip out a checklist of plotpoints shared with Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” and TNT’s “HawthoRNe,” annoyingly identical nursing dramas which both completed their first seasons within the last five weeks.

“HawthoRNe” already had it tough enough, launching a week after the excellent “Nurse Jackie” and compounded its plight by only occasionally rising to the level of mediocrity. 

And “Mercy” is worse than “HawthoRNe.”

Full review after the break…

I don’t subscribe to the notion that it’s sometimes necessary to issue a moratorium on certain genres when the market gets too glutted. I believe that it would be possible for three different nursing shows to premiere in a four month period without creating a tear in the time-space continuum. That only works, though, if the shows have a different approach to the subject, a different prism or point of view. 

One thing I want to make explicit: “Mercy” didn’t steal any of its characters, narrative or structure from “Nurse Jackie” or “HawthoRNe.” This isn’t about theft or intellectual property or any of that. I completely buy that three nursing shows developed at the same time and probably researched in a similar fashion would have a lot of similarities. NBC executives, though, had three months to say to the “Mercy” team, “Look. We don’t want people to be making these comparisons and we know they will. Here’s the kernel of your show that’s original. Take a step back and reapproach the story around this unique element and we might have something.”

It’s my understanding that that’s what creative executives are supposed to do. And maybe that would have happened if “Mercy” hadn’t been rushed to fall.

Probably not, since when I asked about similarities at TCA press tour, I was told that the three nursing shows are nothing alike.

The hell you say.

Taylor Schilling plays Veronica Callahan, a stern nurse who knows more about medicine than all of the residents combined (yes, that’s from NBC’s plot synopsis). Yes, she’s a bit like Edie Falco’s Jackie or Jada Pinkett Smith’s Christina Hawthorne, but that shouldn’t be surprising, because all three shows have gone a long way to convincing me that all nurses are awesome noble saints and all doctors are blithering idiots who treat said nurses with contempt and are constantly trying to kill patients with their neglect and ego. [Actually, every nurse I know personally is, indeed, an awesome noble saint, but I’ve been lucky.]

Because Veronica is so capable and gifted, she’s constantly showing up the doctors, which doesn’t sit well with the hospital’s Stern Minority Authority Figure. In “Mercy,” that role is played by Delroy Lindo who, despite being the most talented actor in the cast, isn’t mentioned in NBC press notes and isn’t featured in a single photo on the network press site.  This Stern Minority Authority Figure isn’t anything like Anna Deavere Smith’s strangely used character on “Nurse Jackie.” [Kudos to “HawthoRNe” at least for reversing the racial dynamic with a Semi-Stern Caucasian Authority Figure played by Michael Vartan.]

Veronica has a salt-of-the-earth blue collar husband (Diego Klattenhoff’s Mike), but she’s also sneaking off to private quarters to make out with a doctor (James Tupper’s Dr. Chris Sands). That sounds nothing like “Nurse Jackie,” so don’t worry.

It isn’t totally Veronica’s show, though. She has a stunning best nursing buddy in Jaime Lee Kirchner’s Sonia (as close to a wholly original character as the show has). Also, the pilot happens to be the first day for a wide-eyed nursing ingenue fresh out of school. This newbie is made fun of for her childish scrubs and wide-eyed enthusiasm and she takes the death of patients extremely seriously and she almost never blinks, because she’s so wide-eyed. And if Michelle Trachtenberg’s “Chloe” sounds just a little bit like Merritt Wever’s “Zoey” (the similarities in names are coincidental, I’m sure), she shouldn’t, because Merritt Wever is awesome. The ladies are sometimes accompanied by their Ethnic Gay Nurse buddy, but Guillermo Díaz’s Angel isn’t anything like Haaz Sleiman’s Mo-Mo.

From the inexperienced young doctor who nearly kills a patient, to the crotchety old woman who initially mocks nurses and only respects doctors, but proves an eventual voice of reason, most every subplot in the “Mercy” pilot comes across as a retread. And NBC has already started airing adds in which Trachtenberg’s Chloe blithely nearly kills a patient by botching a routine drug administration, which won’t be like the way Zoey nearly killed Victor Garber’s movie critic. No. Not at all.

These are superficial similarities. I know that. And if any of the repeated elements were handled well, all similarities would be ignored, if not forgiven. But they aren’t.

The key original element in “Mercy” is this: Veronica served as a nurse in Iraq, so she’s trained in all sorts of unorthodox field triage and she’s also skittish, suffering from nightmares and daytime traumatic episodes. So she’s really less like Nurse Jackie and more like Kevin McKidd’s Dr. Owen Hunt from “Grey’s Anatomy.” That’s the part of the story that felt new to me and weaving it into a broad characterization of authority — Veronica likes to lecture people — and a familiar love triangle (Tupper’s McDreamy was also in Iraq) made it reductive. Isn’t everything reductive in a pilot? Yes. So maybe that’s why easing the other generic characters into the narrative gradually — Maybe the newbie *doesn’t* have to enter Week One, especially if she isn’t used to give us a fresh perspective on the hospital — might have been more fluid.

That element isn’t handled badly, so much as superficially. The allegedly fresh take that’s handled horribly is Veronica’s blue collar roots. She lives in Jersey City and any time the show tries to depict anything working class, its contempt and condescension is evident. Particular blame has to go out to Kate Mulgrew, who staggers around with her hair up and a cigarette hanging from her lip as Veronica’s mother, looking like a parody of Sharon Gless’ “Burn Notice” character, only without the heart or the humanity. 

The worst part of “Mercy” may be that none of the lead actors are incapable of doing their jobs. Schilling is a bit strident, but she doesn’t lack for screen presence. If Trachtenberg were instructed not to play her character as mentally handicapped in her simplicity, she could certainly pull this off. Kirchner’s actually dynamite, despite having nothing to work with. And Tupper doesn’t have to do much but show his dimples, but I’m guessing he could do that. Then the show has Lindo and James LeGros, totally wasted as the most insufferable of the insufferable doctors. 

The timing of “Mercy” is a problem (“It wasn’t even supposed to be on today!”). The originality of “Mercy” is lacking (“Nurse Jackie” has already been renewed for a second season and I can wait). But, worst of all, to misquote the Bard, it’s the quality of “Mercy” that’s strained.

“Mercy” premieres on NBC on Wednesday, Sept. 23 at 8:00 p.m.

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