There have been many turn-of-the-century dramas recently, with some likewise focused on medical professions, but Cinemax's THE KNICK is far and away the best. Set in the New York City of 1900, this period piece concerns Dr John W. Thackery (Clive Owen); a cocaine-addicted physician at the Knickerbocker Hospital ("the Knick"), who becomes chief surgeon after the suicide of his esteemed mentor (Matt Frewer).
The Knick's ideas and targets aren't new (an imperfect, selfish hero; sexism and racism common to the era), but the setting, tone, production design, and performances fully compensate. This isn't a stuffy Downton Abbey tea-time fantasy of the landed gentry, it's edgier and more exhilarating. Much of that is a combination of director Steven Soderbergh's talents behind the camera, but I also attribute a great deal to composer Cliff Martinez's anachronistic ambient music (which carried a 1980s vibe at times). This being Cinemax, there's inevitably no modesty when it comes to showing nudity and blood—although both aren't exploitative and unnecessary. It only really serves the story or successfully embellishes The Knick's strange, familiar-yet-alien world.
Clive Owen (another actor making the transition to television now his Hollywood star's dimming) is fantastic in the lead role, playing an innovative doctor battling personal demons (while never allowing that cliché to overwhelm things). There's also the fact Dr Thackery has some racist views (although borne from pragmatism), when brilliant "negro" surgeon Dr Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) is pushed on him as deputy by hospital administrators. A beautiful young nurse called Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) also gets on the wrong side of Thackery over carelessness with a patient's dressings, but soon becomes the only person aware Thackery's hiding a drug problem. (It perhaps doesn't help that cocaine was used as a "miracle" anaesthetic in these days, intriguingly.)
There's a lot to introduce in these first two episodes, but writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler did a fine job balancing the primary concerns of story and character while presenting a realistic look at 1900s medicine—which is both bizarre (a pregnant woman dips her belly into ice to make a breached unborn baby turn around), oddly amusing (ambulances are horse-drawn carriages with hand-cranked sirens), and explicit when it comes to showing the frighteningly antiquated surgical procedures. Those sequences are masterfully done, and genuinely harrowing to watch with modern-eyes.
It's a great insight into a time when all ambulances did was collect sick people, to be paid for the living they manage to get to a hospital before dying, and you can't help being impressed by Thackery's skills—even if, I'm sure, some of the procedures would make 21st-century doctors gasp and shake their heads. Or maybe a lot of what he's doing is incredible and ahead-of-its-time, considering the outmoded equipment available? It was an exciting period for the medical profession, nevertheless, as Thackery mentions during a eulogy that medicine's progressed more in the past five years than it did the previous five hundred.
I was pleased to learn that Thackery himself is based on real-life surgeon William Stewart Halsted, as this will hopefully help inspire storylines with added authenticity. Showtime's Masters of Sex has even deeper connections to reality, and it certainly hasn't restricted them in any way, so the added flexibility of The Knick should be a boon.
Overall, while much of the drama is built around things we've seen before, I'm still excited to see how this particular show handles those ingredients. Even the issue of racism remains interesting, with Dr Edwards stuck doing menial tasks and given a basement "office", which he begins to secretly transform into a makeshift surgery of his own.
And seeing as Cinemax have already commissioned a second season, there isn't even any anxiety over committing your time to this excellent series. Dive in.
written by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler | directed by Steven Soderbergh | 8 & 15 August 2014 | Cinemax