Considering the fervor surrounding Season 1 of “The Knick” — with critics writing correcting or clarifying “season” reviews in addition to their originals — Steven Soderbergh’s first foray into television has already reached a cult status of sorts. Viewership is meager, especially given the talent involved (though there could be millions more watching online), but there’s enough praise and enthusiasm to elevate the series above the horde of its dramatic competitors and into the cultural milieu. Even for those who weren’t in love with every aspect of creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s period story (like yours truly), the far-too-quickly-fading moments of glory, where everything came together for “The Knick,” made a second season something to look forward to with more excitement than concern. Whether you loved it or liked it, promise for improvement was evident.
Sadly, in the first four episodes of the new year, “The Knick” remains the same: beautifully executed, but too easily calculable. Unlike other ambitious first seasons that were met with fewer accolades than expected, “The Knick” seems to have dug in its heels rather than evolve. There’s a difference in serialized storytelling between utilizing events of the past for growth in the present, and remaining so beholden to them characters feel stuck. Fans will soon find out how this applies to Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) & Co., as Season 2 struggles to push its characters in new directions even while allowing them even more leeway (read: more, grander experiments) to correct past habits.
That’s not to say “The Knick” isn’t worth watching. Soderbergh’s framing seems even more fluid in Season 2, zipping about from all angles as though he’s keen to explore every inch of his immaculate sets. Multiple shots use actors’ backs as tracking points — almost like an homage to Darren Aronofsky — with the choice focused more on the setting than who’s entering it. His roaming camera shows the space as a way of authenticating the world itself, and it works amazingly well. Rarely does one feel so distinctly immersed in an area known to no longer exist, yet is brought to life with such utter legitimacy. Credit goes to everyone in the production staff — costumes, sets, lighting (especially lighting) — but it’s all tied together by Soderbergh doing what Soderbergh does best.
That alone makes “The Knick” an event not to be missed, while its actors certainly demand to be seen as well. Owen, who earned a Golden Globe nod for his work in Season 1, remains at the top of his lofty game as the drug-addicted Dr. Thackery. Last seen being sent to rehab, Season 2 picks up in 1901, a year after the start of Season 1 and at least a few months into his time away from the Knick. Without getting into spoilers, it’s safe to say Thackery is still suffering from the fallout of his failed attempt at a blood transfusion and in need of more than just physical treatment. Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), meanwhile, is dealing with similar after-effects from his ill-fated fist fights, but almost entirely of the physical variety. Holland continues to be the best thing about the show — and I say that with full knowledge of the praise heaped upon Soderbergh above — but more on him shortly.
These formal components — directing, acting, design — should add up to more than they do, especially considering just how good they are on their own. No one is denying the cinematic mastery of the series. Soderbergh and his crew are clearly in their element, staging impressive scenes easily admired for their formal beauty. It’s just that there’s not much beyond that to keep viewers invested. The guts — so prominently on display in the gruesomely fascinating surgical room scenes — are (ironically) missing, while what’s most vital for great television — the writing — isn’t developing as it needs to, especially for a series that started with the handicap of being another series about a drug-addicted doctor.
Given the time period and talent, we should have moved past that plot point by now. Many may have thought we would after Season 1’s finale found Thackery in rehab, but, unfortunately, his addictions — drugs and otherwise — remain the ill-conceived focus over the most exciting story in the show. That would be the story of Dr. Edwards, an educated African-American doctor frustrated by his lack of respect yet undeterred in his ambitions; in love with an upper-class white woman, but forced to keep their romance a secret due for fear of societal uproar; using back alley bare-knuckle boxing matches, a violent and self-destructive outlet, for his repressed hostility toward such inhuman treatment — all this makes for one helluva compelling yarn (not to mention a timely one, given our current racial tensions). And Holland’s performance is so utterly textured, precise and passionate it’s astounding he’s not buried in trophies. Yet somehow he’s still the “B” story, even when he’s given new material to work with (thanks to a twist both promising and questionably introduced) that’s juicier and more relevant than anything else in “The Knick.”
This, in the end, is what makes the drama “very good” TV rather than “great” TV. “The Knick” has a focus problem — which feels almost sacrilegious to say about anything Soderbergh shoots, even when it’s not in reference to the camera. Though Season 2 expands beyond Dr. Thackery’s worldview to a more even-keeled ensemble structure, this shouldn’t be an ensemble show. It should be Dr. Edwards’ show, and — just like its aforementioned limitations in quality — it comes so close to that, it’s even more painful that it’s not.
“The Knick” premieres Friday at 10pm on Cinemax.