When director Steven Soderbergh and Clive Owen went to Cinemax with their 1900’s set television series about imperfect doctors and surgeons saving lives and destroying themselves in New York, people were surprised. Rightfully. Cinemax had a handful of series to its name, including the breakout smash hit, Banshee. For Oscar caliber actors and directors to set up shop there was a huge turning point for the premium cable provider. After years of lurking in the shadows behind its brother affiliate, HBO, shows like The Knick have put Cinemax on the map and for good reason. It’s a brilliant, fresh, and different kind of TV show. As Season 2 debuts this week, let’s talk about the Knick.
If you are bored of the elementary “been there seen that” network television fall schedule, give The Knick a look. Here’s a show that takes you back to the age where technology and equipment didn’t save lives. Doctors, surgeons and nurses did it with their bare hands. This is where the birth of the X-Ray machine is treated like a revolutionary movement and where a device with an ability to suction the fluid out of a body being operated on is treated with a wide gaze of amazement.
The plot of The Knick is simplistic enough to support the amazing history lesson being dished out. Clive Owen’s Dr. Thackery is the most talented and revered blade in the land, the last stop to save a life. His consists of Dr. Gallinger(Eric Johnson) and Dr. Bertie Chickering Jr.(Michael Angarano). The arrival of the brilliant yet unrecognized Dr. Algeron Edwards(Andre Holland) throws a wrench into this team and also helps them evolve as doctors. The bigger problem is Thackery’s substance abuse problem.
There are plenty of players in this show. There’s also the tough yet tender heart of Chris Sullivan’s Cleary, a man who collects bodies yet cares for just a few. There’s Barrow, the boss of the Knick who is up to his knees in gambling debts and has a complexity to his ambition that keeps you watching. There’s Eve Hewson’s Nurse Lucy, a woman torn between her love for Thack and her own well being. This show balances plot threads, historical reveals and the up and down torment of Thackery seamlessly.
Creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler work with Soderbergh(who directed all 20 episodes) to create a world that feels like it existed in real life and also came to life in somebody’s imagination. It’s cold, wet, blurry, black and blue, and full of lust and ambition.
When he isn’t making breakthroughs in medicine or saving lives in “the theater”, Thackery fancies him some opium, among other drugs. He can relax in a brothel or he can shoot the stuff into his toes before surgeries. Here is the world’s most imperfect man doing God’s work but also tempting fate every time he gets high. Flawed people doing great work while destroying themselves in the process. Instead of worrying about losing a patient on the table, Thackery is afraid of being outdone by rival doctors and losing grasp of his legacy. As Season 1 progressed, Thackery’s condition worsened as he became addicted to cocaine.
It’s a treat to watch an amazing actor of Owen’s depth rip into this role. While he has given high quality performances before, Thack is a role that allows every inch of The Brit’s charisma, ferocity and madness to shine. You feel like you are seeing this actor for the first time come alive in front of you. If there was ever a role to match virtuoso, it’s Owen on The Knick.
The real star of this show may be Soderbergh himself. Along with directing, he creates the beautifully blunt cinematography and edits the series as well. It’s an all hands on deck operation and Soderbergh has found his groove in a place few expected to find him. Ask me and Cinemax fits him more than one would think. It’s edgy without being showy. The Knick has depth without being overly complex. As most cable shows are, The Knick feels like a ten hour film slowly dealt out to viewers. It’s unpredictable and raw.
The Knick, in more ways than one, is the show I have been waiting for. While I liked parts of Greys Anatomy and ER, I had a desire for a real look inside a hospital. A blunt knife instead of a bendable toy. Soderbergh, Amiel and Begler’s show pulls zero punches and doesn’t let their characters off the hook. If you think Owen’s mad hatter gets clean in Season 2, you are wrong. If you think Lucy figures things out over a latte and friends, you are wrong. The Knick takes you back to a day and age where nothing was guaranteed and that includes your 30’s. Diseases won the fights back then and people like Thackery and Edwards could only throw as many punches as they could.
Do yourself a favor. Watch the first season of The Knick and then go walk into a modern hospital. If that isn’t a trip, I don’t know what is.