PBS’s first original American drama in more than a decade, Mercy Street follows doctors, nurses, contraband laborers and Southern loyalists in Union-occupied Alexandria, VA in the early years of the Civil War,  but could not be more relevant, co-creator David Zabel told journalists at TCA this afternoon.

“This show is not a political show – we’re trying to capture a cross-section of characters, as the War is just getting going,”  Zabel said in response to a question about recent Confederate flag controversy.

The recent debate over the Confederate flag flying on Statehouse grounds in South Carolina-a debate that followed the shooting deaths of nine black churchgoers and the subsequent arrest of a white supremacist – “only reinforced how important this moment in history was,” Zabel said, referring to the Civil War. “There are still conversations going in in our country now that haven’t been resolved.”

Actor Josh Radnor, asked why he chose this project as his first after starring in CBS’s long-running comedy How I Met Your Mother, said, “I didn’t have an overarching agenda about what I wanted to do next, other than finding great material.” He joked that he’d had a “weird moment” when he thought he’d like to be in “something where I’d get to have an un-ironic mustache, and I was thinking about a ’70s cop show.” Then he got this script, which was “un-ironic and requires facial hair.”

In a typical mainstream TV series, he said, “you’re only asked to play a couple notes.” Mercy Street, he added, “was scary enough and exciting enough I wanted to jump in and see what I could do with it.”

Radnor’s character, a morphine-addicted young doctor Jedediah Foster, sports a scruffy beard and doesn’t “spend a lot of time in front of the mirror,” the actor said. Costar Norbert Leo Butz, on the other hand, said he wanted his Dr. Byron Hale character, with his Colonel Sanders beard, “to look like he had really considered what his facial hair was going to be.”

As for the morphine storyline, “It doesn’t go well,” Radnor joked. “Not one of the good-morphine-addiction stories. It’s more of the negative, so I’d say stay tuned!’

Clips of the first season included several references to Florence Nightingale and reporters wondered if actual historical figures would show up in the series. “We wanted to do an episode where a new nurse named Walt appears and is always scribbling things down,” Zabel said, referring to Walt Whitman, but added that, historically, the poet couldn’t be worked into the first season’s time frame. Look for him next season.

Other “kisses by history,” as Zabel put it, will include a visit by the Lincoln family

Mercy Street debuts Sun, January 17 at 10 PM following Episode 3 of Downton Abbey’s final season.