The Knick is not only an ambitious, intriguing and slow-burning new endeavor from Cinemax; it’s also an interesting gambit from the channel’s more famous offspring, HBO.
Created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, this is a drama already freighted with its own uniqueness: Soderbergh “unretired” to direct all 10 first-season episodes and star Clive Owen, who initially thought The Knick would be a creative diversion between films, took it on as his most important job. Beyond that, Soderbergh actually demanded of HBO executives that The Knick be on Cinemax.
That’s why this is more than just a very tricky, unique dramatic collaboration between a big-name director and star. It has ramifications in empire building and will rely heavily on HBO’s noted patience with high-quality fare.
In case anyone is mystified by the bold-faced names above, The Knick is also a triumphant exclamation point on the notion that a writer’s past work is not necessarily an indication of future potential.
Both Amiel and Begler have résumés that even they call “middling” (TV comedies like Empty Nest and The Tony Danza Show, as well as light comedic films like Raising Helen, The Shaggy Dog and Big Miracle). And yet here they are, creators of something truly bold, a turn-of-the-century medical drama that calls in every last favor that HBO demands of its viewers — specifically, endurance for the marathon at hand.
The Knick is what everyone in New York in 1900 calls The Knickerbocker Hospital. As higher-end hospitals move uptown and away from the problems of the city’s vast poor and immigrant population, the Knick stays put, led by Dr. John Thackery (Owen), a pioneering surgeon who himself was inspired by the Knick’s first such figure, Dr. Christenson (Matt Frewer). The Knick is fascinated by the leap in medical procedures and treatments that places surgeons like Dr. Thackery on the cusp of discovery, despite a disastrously high failure rate for experimentation that takes a toll on those watching death win every round.
This is a series that makes no rush to win support during its pilot, then audaciously walks the audience through another two hours of medical bleakness before arriving, in episode four, almost fully formed. That’s the HBO model to a scientific description, but in this case “almost” is an apt qualifier, because the series really arrives at its most important milestone by the sixth episode. By then, The Knick has fully enthralled with its merits.
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. After all, the show traces the first baby steps into the 20th century, as horses and buggies reluctantly give way to motor cars, electricity is considered a real privilege and medicine — the core of The Knick — is less a hit-and-miss experiment than a miss-after-miss carousel of dead bodies.
But what makes the series compelling is its early focus on two men: Owen’s Dr. Thackery, and the African-American Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), who returns to New York after studying and making a name for himself in Paris. He comes to the Knick at the behest of Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), the daughter of a progressive shipping magnate.
Thackery wants no part of Edwards and doesn’t believe the struggling institution will be served by trying to be New York’s first integrated hospital. The other doctors also have predictably racist reactions to Edwards, but The Knick’s emphasis is on two very talented doctors going about their work and coping with the fallout from it. Owens does an excellent job in making Thackery complex. He’s not immune to Edwards’ skill and isn’t outlandishly racist; he’s first and foremost a product of the times. Thackery is also pragmatic, and buckling under the pressure (he injects liquid cocaine to make it through the days of rampant death from failed surgeries, and spends many of his evenings in an opium den in Chinatown); the last thing he wants to consider is making his life more complicated by having a black doctor on staff.
In turn, Holland is stoic and stewing as Edwards, dealing with a whole other layer of grief by drinking and then picking bar fights (it’s a chance to show off another skill he learned in Paris: boxing).
Though we know that Thackery and Edwards will, at some point, have to face (if not embrace) the situations they find themselves in, the slow movement forward is helped immensely by a large number of minor characters. Among those are Chris Sullivan as Knick ambulance driver Tom Cleary, an Irish brawler who fends off other ambulance drivers, and Cara Seymour as Sister Harriet, a nun who helps the children and pregnant mothers at the Knick while dabbling in something a bit darker on the side.
The series also becomes increasingly adept at depicting the class structure of the times and the underbelly of New York.
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.
There’s no sugarcoating what watching The Knick is like, as the director doesn’t flinch at graphic, sometimes disturbing scenes of blood loss or, for example, Dr. Thackery treating an ex-flame who has lost her entire nose to syphilis. (And no, the arm-to-nose graft process is not skipped over … ahem)
Few channels could get away with such a stark depiction of medicine in America, and 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.
Soderbergh’s demand to be on Cinemax is an intriguing secondary storyline. Clearly, as someone who has already worked with HBO, he’s privy to the fact that Cinemax is being rebranded. It wants to be the home of “five-star” movies, but more ambitiously wants to be reimagined as, if you will, “the next HBO.” Sister channels, be damned.
Cinemax already started to mold itself with fare like Strike Back and Banshee, both better-than-expected dramas that lean heavily on the male demographic’s interest in action and nudity. That both shows are a notch or two above what you’d normally imagine with that description is apparently not success enough. Soderbergh, for his part, knew that shifting a very HBO-like drama such as The Knick to Cinemax would, in turn, make his show the poster series of the remodel. And he liked that idea.
Ah, but the gambit is definitely not without pitfalls. For starters, The Knick does not pay off immediately like Strike Force and Banshee. Most of its action takes place in an operating room “theater,” and most of the nudity it contains comes from corpses. It is not, in any way, an easy sell.
That’s not to say that The Knick is the wrong choice to rebrand a channel. But it’s certainly a bold and possibly strange one.
However, The Knick has already been renewed for a second season, owing greatly to the passion of Soderbergh and Owen. The question now is whether that passion will translate into viewers.