[This is a review of The Knick season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Seeing and hearing Cinemax’s new medical drama The Knick, from director Steven Soderbergh and starring Clive Owen, one is immediately taken with not only the anachronistic nature of it, but how the series works those anachronisms in as a central feature of the series. The incongruity of it all isn’t necessarily related to what’s on the screen, but more in terms of how what is onscreen is presented and accentuated by Soderbergh’s style and, especially, the out-of-place-yet-perfectly-suited synthesized score of Cliff Martinez.
As has been his MO for quite some time, Soderbergh serves as the director, cinematographer, and editor on all 10 episodes of the series set in and around the Knickerboker hospital in New York City circa 1900. As such, Soderbergh brings his usual exacting touch to the proceedings in a way that the dichotomous nature of modern-day filmmaking techniques and the particular score used to make a period drama commingle and create a sense of atmosphere that surpasses many of the other as-yet unformed elements on display during the series premiere.
There is a cold sterility to Soderbergh’s camerawork, one that might first seem at odds with the drama inherent in a series about a world on the cusp of tremendous achievement, but upon close inspection fits perfectly with the antiseptic, composed atmosphere most commonly associated with surgeons and hospitals.
The effect is so keen that, from the first unpleasant trip into the operating theater with Owen’s haughty, cocaine-fueled Dr. Thackery and his colleague/mentor/drug-pusher Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer – whose bald head has suffered even more than Corey Stoll‘s in 2014), one can almost smell the ether and the alcohol wafting from every corner of what is ostensibly a house of horrors – albeit one that is trying desperately to become a house of healing.
The series’ overwhelming sense of purpose is matched by the sense of discovery and advancement seen later in the episode, when Thackery implements a proprietary surgical tool to better suture a man’s bowels after an earlier operation left him in the throws of septicemia. Instances like that, when looked at from the perspective of the era in which The Knick takes place, carry with them a bit of science fiction wrapped in the sterile white apron of a period medical drama.
Such elements and their stylish-yet-seemingly-unadorned presentation help to elevate what is at heart the kind of hospital program that has been seen time and again. Created and (mostly) written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, The Knick takes the familiar tropes of everything from E.R. to St. Elsewhere to Chicago Hope and more and transposes them into a setting that radically changes the game by demonstrating the struggles of a time in which modern medicine was in its infancy.
Those struggles help to define the series as something more than yet another drama set within a specific era – one that’s awash in clever references to moments in time that have not happened yet. In this case, the era does not beckon a wistfulness of what was perhaps a simpler time, but rather it signals the shock and terror of an age when getting sick or needing even the most minor of surgical procedures was in all likelihood a death sentence.
That brand of anti-nostalgia plays well with the conspicuous (but expected) dearth of good qualities that are typically found in a central protagonist, especially one whose objective is the advancement of mankind.
Case in point: despite all that has been made of it, Thackery is more than his pencil-thin mustache. He is overbearing in his approach to nearly everything. His self-aggrandizing nature is apparent from the first moment he tells a carriage driver outside his favorite opium den to take the long way round to the Knick, affording him some time to peel of his symbolically white shoes, find one of few viable veins left between his toes, and administer a healthy dose of go-juice.
Ostensibly a man of science, Thackery is, like the show, an interesting amalgam of conflicting elements. His purpose at the hospital is to save lives, and yet during his long-winded, self-important eulogy of the quickly departed Dr. Christiansen, Thackery all but confesses to seeing the work of a doctor as a direct challenge to God, one that slowly but surely is turning the tide against the Almighty’s insistence of plucking people from the Earth before their time.
Where The Knick succeeds is in its concerted efforts to demonstrate the necessity (and subsequent unavoidability) of emotional disengagement in this particular milieu, by making things as viscerally unappealing as possible, while understanding the many ways in which they are also morbidly fantastic to watch.
This is becomes evident outside the operating theater as the prejudices of everyone – including Dr. John Thackery himself – are exposed upon the arrival of Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), who comes at the request of Cornelia Roberson (Juliet Rylance), the daughter of the Knick’s primary benefactor. The reaction Thackery and the rest of his staff have to being financially compelled to make the Knick a racially integrated hospital help to further the audience’s disconnect from a superficial fondness for a bygone era.
In the end, the series stands as a great leap forward for Cinemax, a network that has, up to this point, been mostly associated with genre programming that, in recent years, has given audiences two terrific action series in Strike Back and Banshee, but has also briefly dabbled in slow burn thrillers like Frank Spotniz’s Hunted. Welcoming the prestige of such a well-made period medical drama will no doubt bring in a whole new kind of audience to HBO’s sister station, one that perhaps never thought it would be seeing the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Clive Owen as part of its increasingly impressive slate of original content.
The Knick continues next Friday with ‘Mr. Paris Shoes’ @10pm on Cinemax.
Photos: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax