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Steven Soderbergh’s ‘The Knick’ Is Transforming How TV Is Made

Steven Soderbergh's 'The Knick' Is Transforming How TV Is Made

When all’s said and done, we may look back on “The Knick” as one of the most important shows in the history of television.

That’s not the same as being one of its best. I didn’t make a Top Ten list for TV shows in 2014, but if I had, I don’t think “The Knick” would have been on it, and based on the four episodes sent press in advance of tonight’s second-season premiere, I can’t say where it will fall this year, either. But even if it’s just a very good show (or even if you don’t think it’s any good at all), it’s undeniably an important, even a revolutionary, one.

“The Knick’s” importance has as much to do with how it’s made as the end product. As detailed in Matt Zoller Seitz’s on-set report, it’s as close as any large-cast ensemble show could conceivably come to being the product of a single artistic sensibility: It’s auteur TV, squared. Steven Soderbergh not only directed all 20 episodes of the first and second seasons, but shot and edited them himself — I almost wrote “himselves” — as well, using his customary pseudonyms of Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard. According to Seitz’s article, on a typical day, Soderbergh wraps by 6 o’clock, starts editing the day’s footage on the ride home, and often finishes in time to make an 8 p.m. theater curtain.

Although it’s set in a turn-of-the-century Manhattan, “The Knick” is as much about the transformational power of technology as it its medicine. The hospital’s chief surgeons, including Clive Owen’s John “Thack” Thackeray and André Holland’s Algernon Edwards, are on the literal bleeding edge, engaging in often gruesome experiments on living subjects. Their progress makes a giant leap when electricity is introduced to the hospital midway through the first season, and the second season begins with the hospital’s horse-drawn ambulance being replaced by a motorized one. Using sensitive digital cameras that can record entire scenes by the light of a single candle, Soderbergh is doing much the same, shoving the medium forward with everything he’s got, jettisoning the language of period shows and making it feel, sometimes uncomfortably, as if we’ve stepped right into the dawn of the 20th century. 

For all that the way we watch television has changed, the way it’s made has remained largely the same: Episodes still come in the familiar flavors of half-hour comedies and hour-long dramas, parceled out 13 or 22 to a season; scripts are produced by writers’ rooms and handed to a rotating cast of guest directors. In part because even shows produced for Netflix or Amazon end up being distributed by more conventional means in foreign territories, the industrial model has been difficult to tinker with, but some of TV’s biggest commercial and critic hits have found ways to adapt it for their own uses. “Empire’s” diverse crew — the only straight white male to direct an episode in the show’s first season was co-creator Danny Strong — allowed it to tap into an audience TV networks didn’t even know they were missing, and Jill Soloway got her cast and crew ready for “Transparent” by having them attend “physical and emotional bonding workshops.”

“The Knick’s” subject matter is less distinctive than “Empire’s” or “Transparent’s,” and early on, the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum feared it was yet another show about a difficult white man whose co-workers put up with his abrasive personality because he’s a genius. But while Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s scripts are full of stock tropes and familiar cadences, Soderbergh’s direction is not, and by the end of the season, Nussbaum reversed herself, praising “Soderbergh’s vision of the body itself as a war zone.”

The writing on “The Knick” has gotten better over time, its use of TV tropes more complicated. By the end of the first season, Thack was no longer an eccentric House-like visionary whose medical insights went hand in hand with his drug addiction, but a deranged, egomaniacal junkie whose arrogance had fatal consequences. The first thing we, and he, see in Season 2 is the face of the young woman he killed attempting to prove attempting to prove a crackpot theory about blood types. The show isn’t radical enough to keep its star player in rehab for longer than an episode, but Thack’s guilt is likely to be as tough to shake as his fondness for cocaine.

In the commentaries on the first-season Blu-rays, the show’s cast says that Soderbergh shoots the entire 10-episode season as he would a single movie, often compressing multiple scenes into one on-set. (It’s important to note that, as much as Soderbergh handles on his own, they all report that it’s an extremely collaborative process; it isn’t simply a matter of one figure exerting his iron will.) Soderbergh’s run-and-gun pace doesn’t allow time for elaborate compositions, but he makes up for it with a fluid camera that often takes an unexpected perspective. In “Ten Knots,” the first episode of the second season, there’s a conversation between socialite do-gooder Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) and her husband about where they’re going to live now that they’ve returned to New York. There’s no overt acknowledgement in the scene that Algernon, who is watching them as they talk, is Cornelia’s ex-lover, but Soderbergh keeps the camera sharp on him while letting her and her husband drift out of focus, forcing us to concentrate on his tamped-down sorrow and anger rather than their marital difficulties. Especially in matters of race and class, the show often uses similar techniques to underline the tendencies of wealthy whites to blot out the presence of anyone else, and the way the people whose existence they don’t deign to acknowledge nonetheless soak up every word.

Soderbergh isn’t the first director to handle every episode of a TV show: Cary Fukunaga directed every episode of “True Detective’s” first season, and it’s common in the U.K. system, where seasons often run for six episodes or less. (It’s also possible for directors of multicam sitcoms, which are shot live in a studio, to rack up dozens or hundreds of episodes — “The Big Bang Theory’s” Mark Cendrowski has 164 to his credit — but they’re not exercising the same level of control.) The single-director style isn’t inherently superior to the traditional model, where writer-showrunners are in control and directors are hired guns, matched with episodes that play to their strengths the way one might cast a guest actor. But if you compare the first season of “True Detective” with the second, which used the traditional multiple-director model, it’s easy to see the difference: One is unified whole, the other a patchwork quilt. The traditional model of TV production has produced masterpieces aplenty, but as the medium evolves — and as more directors, like Soderbergh, leave behind the exigencies of moviemaking for the relative freedom of the small screen — “The Knick” should be a model for other shows to follow, and eventually surpass.

“The Knick’s” second season starts October 16, 10 p.m. on Cinemax

Reviews of “The Knick,” Season 2

James Poniewozik, New York Times

The creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler ground “The Knick” in the infancy of modern medicine, but Steven Soderbergh, the show’s producer and director, sends the series hurtling into the 21st century, with a push from a pulsing electronic score by his longtime composer Cliff Martinez. Whether Mr. Soderbergh’s camera is gazing down a hallway illuminated with crackling electricity or choreographing a back-room wrestling match to percussive synthesizer music, the effect is a transporting, steampunk futurism…. Despite the often dark outlook, there’s also a sense of awe at the analog machinery of life, as in a scene in which two surgeons try to cure a syphilis patient by heating her to a near-fatal body temperature. On the one hand, it’s barbaric; the doctors, on the strength of a hunch, are cooking a patient alive. Yet the sequence is also kinetic and thrilling. As Mr. Soderbergh lingers on the antique mechanisms — a long match igniting burnished gas jets, a thermometer climbing perilously upward — the images are gorgeous, hypnotic. This is what “The Knick,” like the best historical fiction, does for us. It takes us over a century into the past, and it shows us the future.

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter

What sets apart the first couple of episodes is Soderbergh telling the John Thackery comeback story, which partly consists of his zeal for drugs — the addiction never curbed the sharp, foxlike nature of his mind — and ultimately ends up on some beautifully shot scenes on a sailboat. You can tell that Soderbergh delighted in this unexpected detour because it gets his camera out of the dank, dark Knickerbocker, with all those black and brown tones, and out into the sun, where his gift for lighting scenes feels like a drug-fueled love affair with white sails, blue water and pale skin. It’s yet another example of the visual delight that “The Knick” is — and one of those, “Oh right, a truly great director is handling every scene of every episode” realizations. For someone who can barely stomach the moments — three to five per episode — when “The Knick” seems hell-bent on making me want to throw up over a peeled-back nose or a groping hand inside a gurgling chest cavity, the payoff is watching how Soderbergh constructs them. That said, “The Knick” is more than just a visual tour de force. The writing continues to stand out, and the characters evolve, while the acting remains top-notch. This is so much more than a hospital drama — it’s a rogues’ gallery of turn-of-the-century American types, documented through a social-studies lens, fueled by history, leavened by humor and set in a hospital with talented, visionary doctors who are, one year on, still more likely to kill you than they are to save you.

Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly

Considering “The Knick’s” sophisticated view of how the body shapes us, it’s not surprising that the drama’s real pleasures are physical, not emotional. It’s the only TV show that I watch more for the way it’s filmed than for the actual plot. Though it’s created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, director Steven Soderbergh is the real auteur here. His vivid world-building somehow feels futuristic, even though “The Knick” is set more than a century ago. When a syphilitic patient undergoes a “fever cure,” Soderbergh lights the scene with a hallucinatory glow, as if we can somehow suffer through it with her. When doctors tinker with the latest inventions, he overlays the scene with the digital throb of electronic music, as if the hospital is working on technology’s cutting edge. During the most intense scenes, the camera follows troubled characters at a clinical distance, forcing us to observe them with a skeptical eye, as the doctors observe their patients.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

TV is by and large a writer’s medium, but “The Knick” is a director’s show, more than perhaps any series ever has been. Soderbergh has free rein over the series’ look and sound (with enormous help on the latter front from composer Cliff Martinez’s electronic score), and — as explained in great detail in this set visit feature by Matt Zoller Seitz — he’s taken advantage of that freedom to experiment with how scenes are staged and shot to the point where none of it feels familiar, even if the broad strokes may echo a half-dozen other shows and films before it. “The Knick” was, and is, the best-looking show on television, even if Soderbergh is most interested in capturing the ugliness of this particular era. If you asked me to choose a show with great writing or one with great direction, I would choose the former in almost every case. But this show and “True Detective” (where the second season made clear how valuable director Cary Joji Fukunaga was to the first) are making persuasive arguments for the idea that a director-driven series can be great, too.

Mo Ryan, Variety

Drug problems, racism, anti-immigrant bias, corruption and the confining rules that serve an oppressive status quo; nothing about these characters or their problems feels all that removed from the challenges that crop up in our own day and age. And yet “The Knick” is one of the most weirdly optimistic series on TV. Connections are made, often where they shouldn’t be (at least according to society’s rules), and just when you least expect it, the show will supply a lovely tableau right out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. “The Knick’s” roving eye is searching for beauty and kindness too, and sometimes finds it.

Emily Yoshida, The Verge

The way “The Knick’s” second season works through this is imperfect, and by the end of the four episodes I was given to review, I’m not even positive that it’s where the show is ultimately headed. But Soderbergh shares something with Thackeray: a chilly, anthropological eye that favors movement over sentimentality. I rewatched both “Magic Mike” films last week (not for research; just ’cause), and it’s there, too: a distance which denies us a conventional connection with his characters but somehow highlights their humanity with an almost documentary nuance. Thackeray’s immediate inclination upon coming back to the Knick is to study addiction and try to find a real treatment for it; using his analytical skills to conquer his human flaws. It’s an entirely new kind of endeavor to watch unfold on pay cable, and exciting precisely because we have no idea what kind of outcome to expect.

Allison Keene, Collider

There are so many stories to explore, though, that the emphasis on surgery and research (the horrible scenes from which were some hallmarks of Season 1) largely takes a backseat in these first episodes to make way for meditations on old time religion, dates to circuses, unexpected boat rides (one of the most delightfully offbeat moments of Season 2 so far), and complicated personal issues. But for as many plots and characters that “”The Knick” stuffs into its episodes, its proceedings are tempered by such a gorgeous minimalism that it’s never too much. There are a few questionable narrative turns and a few missed opportunities to get a little more radical in the exploration of” The Knick’s” characters, but on the whole, it’s difficult to find a more vibrant and gorgeously crafted show than this.

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