Much has been made of Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from cinema during the prime of his career, and watching the master craftsman work in “The Knick” will not lesson the blow to the cinematic medium at all. His wandering camera capturing everything in deceptively simple-looking shots is still ubiquitous, as is his incredible eye for color. Extreme reds and blue shades imbue some of the medical drama’s more ambitious scenes, while rich browns and blacks are ever-present in a time when electricity was a treat, not a given. What’s truly irksome after six hours of the Cinemax original, though, is that Soderbergh is far enough above this rote material to anger a fandom wishing he would devote his precious time to a more original story.
Though, it is tricky to label Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s story wholly unoriginal. Set in 1900 Manhattan, “The Knick” is both an abbreviation for the hospital housing our main characters and an ironic nod to the gruesome nature of the proceedings within. There are no mere nicks to the skin at The Knickerbocker Hospital. Deep crimson blood pours from open wounds in what’s described as a “lily white” surgical room, and it never seems to stop. “The Knick” falls under the artfully grotesque category most recently associated with “Penny Dreadful,” but it’s not a horror show. It’s experimental surgery in a time when it was all they had, making Soderbergh’s venture into television feel unsettlingly authentic.
Conducting these surgeries is Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), a passionate but emotionally disconnected man and an addict of many things. He believes doctors must keep a safe distance from their patients, not physically (despite the propagation of diseases at the time) but emotionally. ‘Science above all else’ is his motto, but despite his efforts, Thackery copes with the pains of his job via whorehouses and drugs (and not of the prescribed kind).
While Owen enlivens the good-ish doctor with the vigor of unbridled commitment, what we’re left with is still another drug-addicted doctor with an emotional detachment from his patients. We’ve seen him and his like before and “The Knick” does little to make him notable outside of his presentation. Soderbergh finds new frames for everything on this show, and continuously amazes with his unpredictable visions. Yet his captivating depictions are rendered somewhat moot when there’s little emotional weight within his subjects.
The closest writers Amiel and Begler get to a gripping central figure is in Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), a new hire forced on Thackery by the hospital’s administration despite what many of the doctors see as an unforgivable character flaw: he’s black. Edwards is a brilliant doctor who studied and was published overseas, but he’s still a permanent second-class citizen in America at the start of the 20th century. His resilience is at first admirable — he won’t leave for better treatment at another hospital because he’s been wowed by Thackery’s innovative techniques. The two duel with each other, a racial feud brought to reason on a few occasions when each sees the other’s talents.
Played with an appealing blend of cordial manners and restricted fury by Andre Holland, Algernon creates real tension in his interactions with Thackery, which is when “The Knick” is at its best. Watching their innovative surgical techniques is often compelling while listening to their condescending banter makes you question your loyalties. Thackery is our protagonist, with Edwards coming in a close No. 2 — neither are antiheroes (thank God), but both are flawed enough to keep the label of “hero” at a distance. Thackery’s issues are obvious — he’s a racist. Granted, he’s not as ruthlessly racist as many of the other men associating with Dr. Edwards. He’s more upset about being forced to hire someone he doesn’t want than being ordered to work next to a black man, but that doesn’t mean he’s above a few stomach-turning remarks.
Edwards’ faults are less obvious. In a contentious moment in Episode 4, he refuses to explain a surgical technique mid-way through the procedure, risking the patient bleeding out unless Thackery lets him get behind the knife. That decision — along with Edwards’ penchant for fighting — shows a level of frustration within him that’s both dangerous and alluring.
Sadly, it’s not mysterious. His actions are predictable, as are the rest of the characters’. We have the aforementioned drug-addicted doctor; a greedy ambulance driver with a hidden heart; a nun who goes against the church; a stupidly indebted hospital administrator. Everyone is kept at arms reach, making it a rare occurrence when we actually get inside their heads. Soderbergh tries desperately to counteract this using extreme close-ups for surgeries, injections, and at one point literally seeing inside a patient’s face, but even some of his more memorable shots illicit no emotional response outside of, “Well, that looked cool.”
Cinemax was so eager to keep Soderbergh around — and who can blame them? — “The Knick” has already been greenlit for a second season, which is both good news and bad. There’s enough evidence in the first six episodes to think Season 2 could elevate itself past its current common status, but we’ll still be left wishing Soderbergh was taking his talents to a project more immediately worthy of them.