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Television Critics Association

Television Critics Association Day Three: Where’d everybody go?

In a day stacked with documentaries, the scripted ‘Mercy Street’ stands out

Friday wasn’t quite a ghost town at the Television Critics Association press tour, but PBS’ second day of presentations at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles was noticeably sedate. This event, for people who cover television full time, is a 2 1/2-week slog and around day three of hotel ballroom panel discussions, it starts to show.

There was, though, a lot of serious programming to get through Friday, with panels on Newtown, the Independent Lens documentary about the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, as well as a new documentary, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, from Henry Louis Gates Jr. about the last 50 years of black life in America. There was also a panel on All the Difference, a documentary that follows two graduates of Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy through their trials as college students all the way through graduation. Even an afternoon performance from Chicago rapper Rhymefest didn’t really perk things up much, but there were some highlights.

“You never go to a breast cancer rally and shout, ‘colon cancer matters!’ ” —DeRay Mckesson

A new addition for Mercy Street

In January, PBS debuted Mercy Street, a Civil war drama set in a military hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. At the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg called it “the Downton Abbey replacement you’ve been waiting for.” It’s got lots of high drama and 19th century medical gore, both of which are returning in its sophomore season.

The second season, which debuts Jan. 22, marks the addition of a new character played by Patina Miller, who won a Tony in 2013 for her role in the revival of Pippin. In Mercy, Miller plays Charlotte Jenkins, a formerly enslaved woman who works as an abolitionist. Miller told TCA attendees that the character is an amalgam of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, but is most heavily inspired by Harriet Jacobs, the author of the 1861 narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Given that there are so many elements about slavery and the Civil War that have yet to be explored in narrative film and television, I’m excited to see where Miller takes this character, regardless of what Snoop Dogg/Lion/Wildebeest has to say about slavery-based media.

An update on The Talk

In my diary from day two of TCA, I mentioned that there was a question about whether PBS would move up The Talk, its documentary from executive producer Julie Anderson about the lesson parents of color give their children about interacting with police. The Talk isn’t premiering until next year. Today I learned that some of the footage that was shot for The Talk was used in America in Black and Blue, the PBS NewsHour special that aired July 15, precisely because it was so timely. So there will be a bit of overlap between the two.

More from Henry Louis Gates Jr.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that if Henry Louis Gates Jr. is able and PBS is still airing television, the season is going to include something from the veteran historian and documentarian. He’s done 16 PBS documentaries, including his Many Rivers to Cross. This fall it’s Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, which airs in two-hour chunks Nov. 15 and Nov. 22. The documentary focuses on the last 50 years of black American history, and in particular the journey from the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter. Gates, Cornel West, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault sat on the panel discussion, while DeRay Mckesson joined via satellite from Baltimore.

While Hunter-Gault was noticeably circumspect with her opinions about the Black Lives Matter movement, Mckesson brought out one of his greatest hits after a question about Black Lives Matter, declaring, “You never go to a breast cancer rally and shout, ‘colon cancer matters!’ ”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.