'Mercy' review: Needs some doctoring up

taylorschilling_mercy_290.jpg "Mercy," judging solely by the promos, is a world where nurses are the respect-challenged Rodney Dangerfields of the medical profession, yet art the ones who keep you alive in spite of incompetent, megalomaniacal doctors.

And this little service is served up with plenty of attitude.

Admittedly, any show boiled down to sound bites and highlights can feel rather one-dimensional or, in this case, incredibly annoying. "Mercy" is indeed a better show than advertised: the characters have some unplumbed depths, and not all the doctors are evil ... well not if they happen to be hot. The problem is that being somewhat better than annoying may not be enough.

Nurse Veronica Callahan ( Taylor Schilling) decidedly does not have it all: She's returned from a harrowing time in Iraq treating the wounded, is living with her alcoholic parents and is trying to deal with a clingy estranged husband she's outgrown. Add to that a job in which she seems to know more than the doctors and her attractive ex ( James Tupper) popping up to work at the hospital, and you have a very confused lady who can't seem to function in any area of her life, except for tossing back drinks at the local bar.

Viewers will either embrace or become exasperated with all of Callahan's flaws, but Schilling does an admirable job keeping the character from becoming a melodramatic mess.

The two other nurses joining her in medical angst is sexy Sonia ( Jaime Lee Kirchner), much adored and chased by men, and doe-eyed newbie Chloe ( Michelle Trachtenberg, seen earlier in the week on "Gossip Girl"), whose idealism gets in the way of her professionalism. Kirchner's character hasn't been fleshed out enough in the pilot to be compelling yet. All we know is that apparently she reeks of phermones and that some internal soundtrack must play in her head when she walks. Similarly Trachtenberg's Chloe only keeps us guessing which Hello Kitty-printed nurse's smock she'll bust out next. She's eager, she's sensitive and a good target for jokes.

jamestupper_mercy_290.jpgThe men in the series still feel secondary, reacting to the women. Tupper has the same, easygoing magnetism he exhibited in "Men in Trees," and thankfully Delroy Lindo is allowed to be a benevolent and wise doctor who gives Callahan the proper guidance. Once again though, they men are upstaged by another supporting actress -- Kate Mulgrew in a wonderfully sloppy and boozy take on the protagonist's mother.

The series premiere pushes the medical stuff to the background: Only one patient gets any real face time, and the medicine practiced on the show appears to be a mere prop to fleshing out the nurses' characters and their combative relationship with the doctors. The constant barrage of examples pointing out how ineffectual or pompous doctors are get tiresome. There are definitely bad doctors out there. They just don't have to all be concentrated on this one show.

To balance the drama, the writers worked overtime to give the nurses fun, sassy lines, but the cute glibness tends to sound straight out of a parody. When Chloe's character first spots the bartender, the object of all the nurses' fantasies, she's informed, "He's a unicorn. He's a magical creature," and "Girl, he's for looking at, not for talking to."

Following on the sensible, aerosoled heels of "HawthoRNe" and "Nurse Jackie," "Mercy" will have to set itself apart not only from most hospital dramas, but also from the recent influx of nurse shows. For the most part it does, in a softer, more huggable and less drug-addled way.

mercy_trio_290.jpg"Mercy," like the nurses it portrays, suffers from not being taken seriously. If it wants to compete against its time slot rivals, sitcoms and reality shows, it needs to increase the action and intensity, offering a stronger, character-driven alternative. Otherwise, expect it to go the way of Chloe's elderly patient: taken off life support to drift away into a quiet, painless death.

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