Some series start strong and just keep getting better (“Breaking Bad”). Others lure you in with solid openers only to fade out quickly (“Halt and Catch Fire”). Still others can’t find their groove until midway through their first season (“BoJack Horseman”). Then, of course, there are the outright failures from start to what we can only imagine happens at the finish (“Gracepoint,” of late). Knowing which category a show falls into without seeing the entire season is the impossible task of the TV critic, an issue The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum took on in her frankly-titled piece, “I Changed My Mind on ‘The Knick'”.
As a fellow less-than-rapturous early critic (and there were a few of us), I wouldn’t go so far as her to say the latest installments “changed my mind,” Director and executive producer Steven Soderbergh’s 20th century medical drama showed signs of life after a deadened first six episodes, but it still slipped up enough to remind us why “The Knick” is not top tier television. However, it looks like top tier TV, with its pedigree and picture, thus leading to many (heated) conversations about its position among the elite “best” of modern TV. There are two sides to every coin, and in this confounding drama, further examination needs to be paid as to why viewers fall on the side they do.
Heads: Clive Owen
Clive Owen has never achieved superstar status. Despite some early critical and commercial success in “Closer,” “Sin City” and “Children of Men,” the British gentleman known for playing less-than-gentlemanly characters never became the accolade-laden thespian or movie star many predicted (perhaps because he never got to be James Bond). That’s not to say he doesn’t have it in him. As the drug-addicted Dr. John Thackery, Owen’s in top form fighting for legendary medical status as much as for his precious cocaine fix.
In the season finale, we see him reach a threshold that had been routinely topped throughout the season. Forced into withdrawal in previous episodes by trade ships being lost or stalled by the war, we don’t realize Thackery has reached his bottom until he attempts an experimental blood transfusion on a young girl. It goes awry, and the look on Owen’s face — even when delivering the cliche of all medical cliches, “What have I done?” — is harrowing, more than enough to justify his self-admission to a treatment facility at season’s end.
Tails: Dr. John Thackery
For all of Owen’s efforts, his character is nothing but a glorified cliche. Soderbergh and his leading man do their best to paint a pretty enough picture to distract viewers from the cold truth: Dr. Thackery is the 1900s Cinemax version of Dr. House. He’s rude, selfish, incessant, proud and secretive, or everything Hugh Laurie already brought to the table in his aughts Fox drama. Moreover, Thackery simply isn’t the most intriguing aspect of “The Knick.” His story has limitations built into it, while others are free to explore new terrain.
Heads: Dr. Algernon Edwards
Speaking of the “others,” the best of the bunch is easily Dr. Algernon Edwards, played with magnetic fortitude by Andre Holland. The tribulations Algernon has faced — from being disparaged and ignored by his peers to the street brawls he uses to vent his frustrations — became even more personal when he fell for and then was betrayed by Cornelia Robertson. While her hesitancy to father his child were understandable at the time, it tore all the more deeply knowing the gifted Dr. Edwards had simply been born to the wrong time.
What makes his story all the more remarkable is the relevancy of it. One of the show’s best features is its innate understanding of the time period and its ruthlessly raw depiction of it. The racism of the time is paralleled beautifully by the ignorance seen in the antiquated medical practices. Algernon is ahead of his time both as a respectable black man as well as an ambitious doctor. He really is the star of the show, even if he’s been relegated to supporting duties so far.
Tails: Herman Barrow
It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of him. While I’d wager Dr. Edwards has nearly as much screen time as Dr. Thackery — making them co-leads from a forgiving viewpoint — his impact on the show is lessoned by his lower placement on the narrative ladder. Thackery’s story comes first — after all, we began with it and ended on it tonight. In between, we get stories from tertiary characters, all of which pale in comparison to the central thread carried by our two leading men (Holland should at least benefit in the awards races running in the supporting category).
None of these stories is more excruciating than that of Herman Barrow, played with an astute level of sleaze, cowardice, and fury by Jeremy Bobb. Despite the efforts of the actor (and, again, Soderbergh), Barrow spun his wheels all season as the hospital’s embezzling administrator, stealing from the institution as he passed off pig organs as human and bought used X-ray machines rather than new models. His story was worth no more than an occasional pop-in (perhaps watching him sneak around the halls serving as a much-needed injection of humor), but it became unbearable by season’s end, especially when his ploy to kill off one mobster — thus ending the annoying plot line of his indebtedness — only resulted in replacing one laughably silly villain with another. Hopefully Barrow will meet his end, along with other unnecessary plots, sometime soon in Season 2.
Heads: Steven Soderbergh
When we signed up for “The Knick,” we all knew there was one main reason why: The man behind the camera. Soderbergh did not disappoint, and he still hasn’t. Episodes 7-10 were as paradoxically elegant as the first six, with Soderbergh carefully constructing the dirty world of early surgery with a pristine color palette (oh, those browns) and deceptively simple camera moves. Even the most straightforward scene is given a slight twist, if not an entire formatting makeover, with the Oscar winner behind the camera. It really is something to behold, each and every episode.
Tails: Steven Soderbergh
But is this what we want him to be doing? As I stated in my first review, the most frustrating element of “The Knick” isn’t that the show is bad — it’s that “The Knick” is merely unworthy of the director’s time. With virtually anyone else at the helm, “The Knick” would be on par with the rest of Cinemax’s C-level lineup. It’s Soderbergh who keeps pushing the show to its best possible level. A game cast helps, but the director certainly has a hand in coaxing out their best work, while the writing remains technically impressive yet dramatically average. No one will be waiting with bated breath to find out how Thackery recovers from his drug addiction or if Edwards sustained any permanent damage from that brutal fistfight. We will, though, eagerly wait to see what Soderbergh has in his never-ending bag of camera tricks. Whether or not that’s enough to justify your own time at “The Knick” is up to you.