As the days grow shorter and the weather turns wintry (and COVID-19 remains an ever-present specter), there’s no better way to escape winter’s gloom than to curl up in front of the TV with a steaming mug of hot chocolate and a compelling period nursing show. We’ve put together a compendium of five outstanding series, featuring nurses, that not only entertain but also offer a glimpse of what nursing was like in times past. Ready for a little time-travel getaway?
The Knick – Cinemax – 2 seasons
Amazon Prime, YouTube TV, CINEMAX GO, Hulu, VUDU, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube
If you like brilliant but brooding heroes and plucky, devoted heroines, surrounded by a cast of Dickensian characters, you’ll love The Knick. It’s set in New York City during the early 1900s, where Knickerbocker Hospital and its doctors, nurses, attendants, and administrators grapple daily with disease and death in the midst of poverty and corrupt local politics. The gifted Dr. John Thackery is a pioneering surgeon who is secretly addicted to cocaine and opium, and the equally gifted Dr. Algernon Edwards is constantly thwarted by racism and resented by less talented staff surgeons. An idealistic young nurse, Lucy Elkins, comes to The Knick from West Virginia and soon strikes up a friendship with Dr. Thackery, eventually nursing him through acute withdrawals and relapses and becoming his lover. The series takes particular care to portray medical and surgical procedures authentically as they existed at the time, making us all grateful for advances in modern medicine.
The Crimson Field – PBS/BBC – 2 seasons
Amazon Prime, VUDU, Google Play, YouTube
The Crimson Field, set in a muddy field hospital in WWI France, focuses on three nurses as they cope with treating horrific battlefield injuries and the personal backstories that brought them together. Flora, a wealthy socialite, is dismayed, to say the least, at what she has gotten herself into; unmarried Rosalie is resigned to spinsterhood and good works; and outspoken Kitty defends her colleagues against the stern and controlling matron — who has her own demons to deal with. The rivalries and friendships among the nurses and matrons won’t be unfamiliar to anyone working in a hospital today, and the wounded soldiers’ agonies will resonate with nurses who have worked in a trauma setting. (Bonus for Downton Abbey fans: see if you recognize two actors who had prominent roles in downstairs Downton!)
Mercy Street – PBS – 2 seasons
Amazon Prime, VUDU, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube
Mercy Street draws on the memoirs and correspondence of doctors and female nurse volunteers during the US Civil War for a meticulous portrayal of the procedures and practices of its day. The story is set in Alexandria, Virginia, where a hotel owned by a wealthy family is commandeered for use as a hospital by the Union Army. Mary, a widow and staunch Union supporter, is hired as head nurse and quickly bumps heads with another nurse, Anne, a Confederate loyalist who studied and worked under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War (and doesn’t hesitate to let everyone know it). When Mary is made head nurse, Anne is less than pleased and connives to undermine Mary. Emma, daughter of the hotel/hospital owner, becomes a volunteer nurse because she objects to the hospital’s practice of treating wounded Confederate soldiers with less care than given to Union soldiers. In a parallel storyline, Samuel, a freedman and gifted natural physician, performs emergency surgery in secret and is shielded by Mary, who recognizes Samuel’s ability and supports his desire to help Alexandria’s enslaved and free Black people.
Outlander – Starz – 5 seasons (so far)
Starz, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, VUDU, iTunes, YouTube
If you’re a fan of the Outlander series of novels, you’ll love this cinematic re-creation of this time-travel saga/romance in which Claire, a Scottish combat nurse just returned from World War II, goes on holiday in the Highlands with her husband hoping to rekindle the romance in her marriage. After watching a group of white-robed women dancing in a stone circle, Claire finds herself swooped back to the mid-18th century, deep in a forest where kilted men are engaged in a bloody battle. Stumbling through the woods to evade the fracas, she literally bumps into … her husband, Frank. But he is not Frank; he is Jonathan, an ancestor of Frank and the cruel captain of the nearby fortress, who treats her roughly and insults her womanhood. She is rescued by one of the rebel Scotsmen, spirited away to their camp, and puts her 20th century nursing experience to work treating one of the wounded rebels. She remains with the rebel band, who force her into marriage with the handsome young soldier she nursed back to health. They fall in love. She becomes the band’s official healer, surgeon, and counselor, using her knowledge of history (or the future, depending on how you look at it) to warn the rebels about the dangers of their planned course of action. And that’s just season one.
Call the Midwife – PBS/BBC – 9 seasons (so far)
Netflix, Amazon Prime, VUDU, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube
This beloved, long-running drama—based on the memoirs of a real nurse-midwife—begins in early 1957 in London’s East End with Jenny beginning her career as a nursing midwife at a convent. Jenny’s first delivery occurs when her patient falls and suffers a concussion, which brings on labor. With no one at her side and no way to summon help, Jenny must manage the delivery on her own. The series unflinchingly tackles issues like poverty, immigration, and abortion but is populated by a relatable and fascinating group of personalities with compelling storylines who come and go through the years.