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Cinemax' 'The Knick': What the Critics Are Saying

Directed and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, the dark 10-episode drama about Victorian-era surgeons in New York stars Clive Owen and Andre Holland.

The Knick Trailer Screengrab - H 2014
"The Knick"

Steven Soderbergh's The Knick is open for business.

The Jack Amiel-Michael Begler series, premiering Friday night on Cinemax, pulled the director out of "retirement" to helm all 10 first-season episodes about the surgery wing in the Knickerbocker Hospital, set in New York in 1900. Clive Owen stars as Dr. John Thackery, a pioneering surgeon who has his share of self-destructive vices, and Andre Holland plays African-American Dr. Algernon Edwards, who returns to New York after studying and making a name for himself in Paris.

The dark drama has already been renewed for a second season and may jumpstart the network's redirection to shed that "Skinemax" moniker earned with decades of late-night titillation (Soderbergh requested that the series air on HBO's sister network). 

Read what top critics are saying about The Knick:

The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critic Tim Goodman says in his review that it's "an ambitious, intriguing and slow-burning new endeavor from Cinemax. ... It’s a serious work of television that is angling to dramatize numerous weighty subjects, and isn’t overly concerned with distracting the audience with shiny objects in the process. Viewers must have a real willingness to see blood and muck, not to mention the ability to stomach the sexism and racism on display in the story." Additionally, "The series also becomes increasingly adept at depicting the class structure of the times and the underbelly of New York. ... What The Knick will do almost certainly is make every single viewer happy to live in the present, not the past, if he or she is worried about ever having a medical condition."

Of the lead actors, "Owens does an excellent job in making Thackery complex" and "Holland is stoic and stewing as Edwards," and "tying it all together, of course, is Soderbergh’s direction, employing hand-held cameras and precise lighting to get just the right sense of the New York atmosphere. He’s also a master of distinctive close-ups that allow the actors — particularly Owen — to wordlessly expand the emotional context of their characters. Soderbergh is also not shy about stylistic flourishes, as when he choreographs a wordless, blurry, staccato-rhythmed alley fight that’s a real highlight of the middle episodes."

The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley calls it "unusual and very good. It’s a great leap backward in time, yet another ambitious examination of an important but often overlooked epoch in history ... this show has a revisionist agenda: it, too, explores a field that was defined and dominated by white men, adding contributions by African-Americans and women." Though at the time, "surgery is still quite primitive, and the show’s medical scenes are so gruesome and bloodily rendered that they are almost hazardous to watch," the series "boldly glories in the backwardness of turn-of-the-century medicine — and gushes of blood, bursting sutures and crusty infections." In comparison to Deadwood and Gangs of New York, "there is a higher purpose in The Knick, but also plenty of colorful low lives" in its gritty portrayal of the setting: "a fascinated and fascinating look at New York in 1900."

The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum instead writes that the series "leans hard on cable drama’s hoariest (and whoriest) antiheroic formulas, diluting potentially powerful themes. ... The surgical-history material is rich stuff, but the series itself is dour and hokey, full of stock characters and eye-rolling exposition. Designed to flatter rather than to challenge the viewer, it’s proof that even an ambitious director can't overcome a blinkered script." Though "Holland brings considerable charisma to the role of the soft-voiced, steely-spined Edwards, the character is a dignified contrivance, a model minority who is all decency, without edges or idiosyncrasies." Altogether, "the best bits—a race riot, an unsettling series of C-sections—never gain traction, since the larger arcs veer, maddeningly, toward progressive wish-fulfillment: the essentially decent people (sexy, iconoclastic freethinkers) must eventually unite against the jerks (thugs, prigs, snobs, bigots)."

Los Angeles Times' Robert Lloyd notes that "the series is at its most convincing, and most beautiful, at its most static. When the show bursts into action, or insists upon making its characters intense and extraordinary — some of them fictionally take credit for real-world medical advances and inventions — it grows, paradoxically, proportionally less interesting." He highlights Chris Sullivan, Cara Seymour and Eve Hewson, as "the most interesting performances and best-written characters come from the lower ranks," and, "except for a few self-consciously 'artistic' passages and some scenes in which the post-production sepia has been dialed up a little too high, the series, with its combination of real, constructed and digital Old New York, looks great."

Time's James Poniewozik says the show "feels as immediate as any series set in 2014. It’s a period drama that never forgets that its characters are on the cusp of their own dizzying future of scientific and cultural change, and it presents them like people who are living in their own present, not someone else’s past." Soderbergh has "given the show a look that’s not only distinctive for a period drama but that serves the show’s themes. ... The Knick is painstaking in its details and the brownstone Brooklyn locations that stand-in for gaslight-era Manhattan. But it looks distinctively like a show shot in 2014."

The Knick premieres Aug. 8 at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee