“No one handles the unexpected like John Thackery,” someone quips in “The Knick.” “It’s where I live,” comes the doctor’s quick reply, and it’s about as perfect a summation of the lead character of the new Cinemax show as you’re likely to get. “Unexpected” is also a good descriptor of the series itself. While it’s presented as a period medical drama — and it certainly is, if that’s all you’re looking for — over the course of the seven episodes sent in advance to press (the first season runs ten episodes long), it steadily becomes clear that “The Knick” is so much more than that, and it’s easy to see why Steven Soderbergh, who had retired from making feature films, couldn’t resist getting back behind the camera. “Look, I was out. I read this thing last May, right before we were going to Cannes with ‘Behind the Candelabra.’ I read it and was like, ‘Shit.’ I was the first person to get it. I went, ‘Well, the second person who reads this is going to do this,’ ” he said last month. And good thing this crossed his desk, because “The Knick” might be the best work Soderbergh has done in ages.
Like many shows, the pilot, “Method And Madness,” is actually the weakest entry, but that’s a relative term, given how strong it still is, even when compared to the upward trajectory “The Knick” takes in the ensuing episodes. Grabbing viewers by the neck, not a moment is wasted in plunging straight into the world of the show in an intense ten-minute opening. The sequence sees Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) woken up by a fully nude woman in an opium den then traveling by carriage in 1900 New York City to the Knickerbocker hospital. Upon arrival, he scrubs in to assist his mentor Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer) in the operating room, where surgery is about to begin on a pregnant woman suffering from placenta previa. The surgery is crude, extraordinarily bloody (the show is not for the faint of heart) and ends with the death of mother and child, not an unlikely outcome at the time. But it’s the final straw for the veteran Christiansen, who retires to his office, lays out a white sheet on the couch, and resignedly shoots himself in the head. Again, this is just the first ten minutes, and if you’re not already sitting up and paying attention, you might not have a pulse. While “The Knick” as a whole doesn’t revel in these kind of theatrics, as far as inciting incidents go, you likely won’t be flipping channels.
Put into the role of Chief Surgeon, and with the Harvard certified, black doctor Algernon Edwards (André Holland) thrust upon him as his new Assistant Chief Surgeon, Thackery leads a crew of loyal devotees under the roof of the Knick. There’s Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson), whose antipathy for Edwards, whom he feels stole a job that was going to be his, is shared by Thackery, who doesn’t like behind told who to work with by hospital administrators. Dr. Bertram “Bernie” Chickering (Michael Angarano) is a surgeon in training, much to the chagrin of his father, who feels his son would be better served working at an uptown institution, rather than at the decidedly downtown Knick. Meanwhile Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) is the new, somewhat wide-eyed nurse from West Virginia who has to quickly roll with the always changing, unanticipated events that a hospital in Manhattan brings with it. And while everyone is looking at Thackery for leadership, he’s barely keeping it together.
An obsessive, driven, egomaniacal, casually racist, drug addict, Thackery is also undeniably a surgical genius, whose reputation stretches far beyond the city limits. It’s the kind of character any actor would be lucky to play and Owen comes at it with a blazing energy in what might be the best performance of his career. He commands the role of Thackery, finding a man so consumed by vice that nearly all of this veins are collapsed from injecting himself, yet who is able to perform at the highest level of his profession, and continue to inspire the team around him. Thackery isn’t always likable, and he’s kind of an asshole, but Owen never hides the character’s passion for medical science. In an age of innovation, the drug that attracts Thackery the most might not be the vials of cocaine he keeps in his desk, but the new inventions and procedures that come along each day, and the ability for him improvise and discover new techniques.
While any show would be content to have a lead as compelling as John Thackery, what makes “The Knick” more than just a medical drama with old timey clothes are the supporting characters, and how ingeniously it uses the premise to explore life in New York City at the time. One of the richest relationships developed in the series — for reasons that won’t be spoiled here — comes from the unlikely alliance forged between the seemingly no-nonsense Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) and the hospital’s foul mouthed, hard living ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan). Their story rivals Thackery’s in depth, and it’s one of the surprising highlights of “The Knick.” And this generosity from series writers Jack Amiel and Michael Belger in fleshing out the supporting players extends to the rest of the ensemble.
Cornelia’s (Juliet Rylance) role as the Knick’s head of Social Welfare takes on an additional resonance, when her father and fiancé presume that this is just a temporary gig before she marries into wealth, and submits to her duties as the arm candy to a rising young tycoon. She’s good at her job, and likes making a difference, and these feelings only intensify when she joins Health Department Inspector Jacob Speight (an enjoyably uncouth David Fierro) on an investigation. Meanwhile, the seemingly put together administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), is one of the sleaziest operators at the hospital, and his wheelings and dealings soon have him stuck between a rock and a hard place as he tries to hide his crimes and infidelities.
It’s through these three-dimensionally drawn characters that the drama of “The Knick” expands well beyond the hospital doors. The show is arguably more a portrait of New York City of the era than it is a medical drama. The storylines take viewers everywhere: into the homes of the upper class, the tenements of the working poor and immigrants, the plush, softly-lit environs of brothels, rough and tumble Irish bars, rooming houses, and more. Hospitals are often the melting pot of the city that surrounds it, and Amiel and Belger are fascinated with exploring the metropolis brimming with life around the Knick. This setting provides a variety of fascinating opportunities to unravel the narrative threads attached to these characters.
If one had to wager a guess, that richness is likely what sold Soderbergh on “The Knick.” The filmmaker has always been keen on trying his hand at different genre traditions, but in recent years, as accomplished as some of the films have been — “Contagion,” “Haywire,” “Side Effects,” “Magic Mike” — they have also felt a bit slight, too. By contrast, “The Knick” compounds that feeling, as you can palpably sense the excitement Soderbergh has in telling a story on this big of a canvas. You would probably have to go back to “Traffic” or “Che” to witness the Soderbergh on display here, wholly invested in creating a universe for these characters and this story, and it goes far beyond his always impeccable editing and direction.
Working as “Peter Andrews,” his longstanding director of photography alias, Soderbergh’s enthusiasm is felt behind camera too. Sometimes buzzing like a fly on the wall with an almost hand held aesthetic, and at other tomes blurring the corners of the frame like it was a shot through a turn of the century still camera, the visual style of “The Knick” alternates between a vibrant nervous energy (akin to the drug aided highs and lows of Thackery himself) and a sombre, period appropriate seriousness. A shifting palette reflects everything from amber hued rooms lit by newly arrived lightbulbs to the oppressive interiors of less fortunate citizens of New York, who barely have a single filthy window to let the light in. Soderbergh has always been considered in establishing the colors and shades for his stories, and that’s no different here.
The energy on the screen is matched in the speakers by composer Cliff Martinez, who, is his tenth collaboration with Soderbergh, doesn’t miss a beat. At first, his anachronistic score, comprised of the distinct throbbing electro tones that are a trademark of much of his work, seems to be an uneven match. In particular in the pilot, where the music tends to be a bit more prominently placed and emphasized than in the rest of the series, it’s initially jarring. But once the the show settles into a groove, so too does the score, and it’s a perfect fit, an audio parallel for the seemingly futuristic modernity that Thackery and the staff at the Knick come to experience with regularity at the hospital. Martinez’s work is certainly noticeable, but largely not intrusive, providing a subtle pulse to the proceedings that keeps the one hour episodes zipping by — “The Knick” rarely, if ever, drags.
However, for all the depth of detail at every level of production, “The Knick” doesn’t quite hit the mark when it comes to some of the most simple character interactions. As mentioned, Amiel and Belger do a terrific job in really running with concepts for “The Knick,” but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the drama, some of the character developments is left wanting, particularly when it comes to the romantic relationships that emerge. Telegraphed fairly early on, they still don’t feel particularly organic or interesting. They are melodramatic in the ways that the rest of “The Knick” tends to avoid, and simplistic, when the rest of the series deals more in nuance. Granted, these romances don’t enter the show until later in the season, and having not seen the series through to the end, one hopes that Amiel and Belger will treat them with the same thoughtfulness as the rest of the series, and not go down the predictable path they seem destined for.
But when the rest of “The Knick” is so immensely satisfying, and with so many stories unfolding all over the city and the titular hospital, one can overlook a couple of minor transgressions. Soderbergh fans will be pleased to find the director commanding the kind of storytelling powers we haven’t seen from him in a long time — this is a director clearly inspired, and whatever reservations he might have about making a standard two-hour movie, haven’t dampened his enjoyment of the medium in general one iota. And for everyone else, this is top tier television that you simply won’t want to miss. [B+]
“The Knick” premieres on Cinemax on Friday, August 8th at 10 PM.