We talk about auteur-driven television often, because it’s become part of our discourse now, nearly a new sub-sect in the medium of visual storytelling. In its utopian image, auteur-driven TV is perhaps the missing link between cinema and television, taking the best of both mediums and fusing them to create a super-hybrid of narrative — long and deep, but formally audacious and meaningful. But even in its loosest definitions, there are not many examples. In fact, Jill Soloway (“Transparent”) is the rare writer/director putting her imprimatur on television in the same manner as cinema. Even Cary Fukunaga had creator Nic Pizzolatto’s story and screenplay to guide him through “True Detective,” and as the filmmaker admitted himself in a Tribeca Talk earlier this year, aside from a few conspicuous shots and that daring bravura longtake, “the camera doesn’t move that much,” noting that time and logistics precluded “visual pizzaz” throughout the series from early on.
But if the non-writer/director version of an auteur could be pinpointed as a cinematic identity overshadowing even the text the filmmaker is interpreting, its safe to say our most vital version of that form on television is the work of Steven Soderbergh. The stylish show, which he crafts, directs, edits, shoots, but does not write, “The Knick,” possesses a viscerally dynamic and overwhelming extant energy. It’s a post-modernist anti-period piece, and the show’s vein-pulsing hyperrealism is achieved through counterintuitive contemporary means. Soderbergh’s hyper-restless camera is essentially a character, and while graceful, that lens is never afraid to get dirty. The show employs moody anachronistic sounds — provided by the throbbing electronic drones, hums and oscillations of composer Cliff Martinez— and formally daring mise en scène to create a thrilling narrative that makes you feel the immediacy and modernity of living in early 1900s New York where “The Knick,” the name of the titular hospital on the show, is set. We may have our David Fincher guiding the visual palette of “House Of Cards,” or the murderer’s row of stylists who take on David Slade’s template for the handsomely crafted “Hannibal, ” but nothing on television feels as electrically-charged as “The Knick.”
Alan Alda in Woody Allen‘s “Crimes And Misdemeanors” said about comedy, “if it bends it’s funny, if it breaks, it isn’t.” And this is akin to Soderbergh’s approach with the show’s formalism, as he seems to ask himself. “What’s this scene about? And how can we push it to it the limit visually?” That’s pretty much the aim from scene to scene through the language of transitions, movement and geographical staging. And as much as we’re aware of the craft, as stylish as the show can be, Soderbergh also employs open space and minimalism as a counterbalance so as to not overshadow the narrative.
Season two of “The Knick” opens up in what feels like one continuous shot centering on the young Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), the once naive West Virginia-born nurse on her way to work. The bustling energy of rush hour in turn-of-the-20th-century New York is juxtaposed against her thoughts in voice-over; a letter of affection she has written to the now M.I.A. surgeon Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) that she is unsure if he has read or has even reached him (it also cleverly contains a few side pieces of subtle exposition to catch the audience up on what has happened since the events of the first season). Martinez’s score is less dispassionate and purposeful cool, more a dreamy glissando with inquisitive tinges — as if it too wants to know what’s next for everyone. And then we realize, it’s not one long shot at all, but the opening scene’s relentless, surgical efficiency sure has the surging rhythm of a stream that is constantly flowing with ideas, thoughts, feelings and mood.
Written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, who thread and crosscut narrative with their own procedural precision, the show’s new tagline, “humanity is hard to cure” is perfect; a lovely double entendre for both the suffering patients and the sickened souls trying to heal them. The lead characters of “The Knick” all suffer from some form of personal damage and in season two their ailments are more pronounced.
At the end of season one, everything was in disarray and the brilliant, but unstable Thackery was at the end of his rope, and the fate of everyone and the hospital was scattered to the winds. Thackery had been overcome by his cocaine addiction and had been introduced to heroin in a recovery clinic no less. As the new episode opens, everyone is still in a state of disrepair. The former chair of the hospital’s board of trustees, Cornelia “Neely” Robertson (Juliet Rylance), moved away to San Francisco and struggles to perform the duties of a wife in a marriage she doesn’t want to be in. And she’s had to leave her secret lover cum childhood friend Dr. Algernon “Algie” Edwards (André Holland), the father of the child she aborted.
It’s now 1901. And paler than usual, the cold-looking palette has a defeated air of disgrace. And while life moves on, the absence of Thackery haunts the halls of The Knick as a spectre. The Knickerbocker Hospital is shuttering and plans to relocate uptown are underway in order to attract more affluent patients. The innovative surgeon Algie Edwards is the acting chief-of-surgery, but he’s still the target of discrimination from an administration that can barely tolerate him and wouldn’t, if it weren’t for his surgical brilliance that they are in desperate need of. He’s jockeying for a permanent position, as Thackery’s return feels like a worrisome question mark to everyone. But Edwards is suffering a detached retina — from the drunken fisticuffs he endured last season to stave off the pain of losing Neely — and it’s affecting his ability to operate. He’s doing his best to hide it from the staff, but it’s only a matter of time before colleagues like Dr. Bertram “Bertie” Chickering (Michael Angarano) catch on. Meanwhile, various doctors, nurses, nuns and administrators grapple with both public and private challenges.
The largest conflict Edwards faces is with Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) returning from a suspension. In the interim, he had been attending to his wife Eleanor (Maya Kazan), who lost their infant daughter from meningitis and lost her mind in the process. After her brutal sanatorium stay Eleanor is doing “better” — though she has been stripped of all her teeth in a misguided attempt to cure her mental illness — and Gallinger is ready to return to work. But his ingrained bigotry and pride is such that he refuses to act as a subordinate to Edwards so he travels to Cromartie Hospital where Thackery is convalescing, to check in on his progress.
Much to his chagrin, Gallinger finds Thackery in a state of decay almost as fractured as Eleanor —paranoid, still-addicted and well beyond just battling personal demons, he’s overtaken by them. Thackeray is off his rocker, and with no plans to return to the Knick — which would mean Gallinger would have to work under the leadership of Edwards — the younger surgeon takes desperate measures and kidnaps his superior to force him to endure withdrawal. Cleverly, Gallinger imprisons Thackery on a sailboat in middle of the Atlantic Ocean, so the drug-addled physician has no escape or reprieve and must get clean or “jump off.”
Elsewhere, most of the cast of characters are up to the same. The greedy and deceptive hospital administrator Herman Barrow (the underrated Jeremy Bobb) is still up to his various schemes and the ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) is as opportunistic as ever. However, his loyal, big-hearted side is drawn out when Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) is arrested, after her secretive, on-the-move abortion clinic is uncovered.
“The Knick” can be a non-starter for the squeamish; the show has no compunction about demonstrating gruesome abscesses being drained, syphilis-ravaged nose reconstructions, chest cavities being torn open, and other gnarly operations, but for all its superficial bloodiness and gore, “The Knick” isn’t very enamored in the procedures of typical medical dramas. It’s a show about the exigency of the here and now of society which is manifest through doctors on the cutting edge of technology — at least for their day and age — doing what they can to push the boundaries of medicine and in the process, improve the world. Of course, as Thackery shows, there is a heavy cost to this brilliance and the ego it takes to push humanity forward.
While rich in period detail, one of the key factors that distinguishes itself from most period narratives is its utter lack of being infatuated with the time and place despite the way it taps into the current zeitgeist. Most period dramas are nostalgic and romanticized, “The Knick” constantly reminds us just how horrible the turn of the century was and how common sickness was basically a death sentence.
If there’s one downside to season two, it’s the feeling that the decimation at the end of season one was all for naught and order will quickly be restored. You can break down a show all you want, but eventually, you’re going to have to get the band back together. The question is whether they can do so in compelling fashion. But so far, it’s a dizzyingly elegant and impressive start.