THE KNICK Review: Clive Owen Leads Steven Soderbergh’s Gruesome But Immersive Hospital History

     August 7, 2014

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The new Cinemax series The Knick, from creators/executive producers Jack Amiel and Michael Belger and director/executive producer Steven Soderbergh, takes a very old idea and gives it a new spin.  The irony is, it does so by going to the past.  The show focuses on New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital starting in 1900, a popular time period on television at the moment (Boardwalk EmpireCopperDownton Abbey), as well as a popular subject for a series (that being a medical procedural).  But the pairing of the two makes The Knick‘s story something unique, and its singular artistic vision, under the direction of Soderbergh, illuminates the world beautifully.  Hit the jump for more.

the-knick-clive-owen-eric-johnsonThe Knick picks up at a time when the medical field is in the midst of great change.  As Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) says to his mentor Dr. J. M. Christensen (Matt Fewer) in a flashback, “you are legitimizing surgery.”  The Knick doesn’t hold back at showing the trials of that transition, either.  The series opens with a graphic surgery, which is only one of many to come.  But for those who can calm their stomachs enough to proceed, there is much to be noted about the antiquated practices that are on the verge of becoming something more recognizable (and, more importantly, successful).

There are certain elements of The Knick that are a little too recognizable, though, such as Thackery’s persona as the irascible, maverick doctor addicted to cocaine and opium.  While Thackery is the show’s anchor (and Owen plays him with a strong and charismatic presence), there is too much happening at the Knick to dwell on him for long.

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Helping to flesh out the hospital’s world are those such as Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), an ambulance driver who is paid for the live bodies he drops off (which makes him very adept at stealing patients from other ambulances, sometimes with the aid of a baseball bat), as well as the hospital’s director Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), who does everything he can to keep the establishment afloat, though his financial obligations leave him in a precarious personal position. Meanwhile, young surgeons (Michael Angarano and Eric Johnson) jockey for position and promotions, and also find time for some flirtation with a nurse (Eve Hewson) who accidentally gets drawn into Thackery’s secret addiction.

There is also a feisty nun (Cara Seymour) who performs some very unholy surgeries of her own in the moonlight hours, and a health inspector (David Fierro) who is the (slightly corrupt) face of a city trying to get a hold on its problem with disease-ridden slums.  The most interesting story though is that of Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), a black doctor who is hoping to be treated as an equal at the hospital after spending time in Europe, but is only met with coldness and a dismissal to the basement.  But The Knick does something with Edwards that most shows looking to incorporate minority characters don’t: he is given his own story.  After the first episode, Edwards is not just a foil for Thackery or a one-man-way to bring social justice to the Knick; he is a character with his own journey to tell that is engrossing.

steven-soderbergh-the-knickSoderbergh brings a distinct style to the series that highlights the show’s dedication to period detail, while also allowing it to feel like a thoroughly modern work (a minimalist modern score also creates a timeless quality).  There are some beautiful shots in addition to the grotesque detail of the surgeries, and in particular, one extended tracking shot in the second episode of the characters all arriving at the hospital for work.  It gives The Knick a cinematic quality that helps gloss over some of its other (though small) issues.  But in other ways, the series also does well to expand Thackery’s character in particular through a series of backstory flashbacks that integrate perfectly with the current world.

The Knick is a very different kind of show for Cinemax, which has tended towards the more violent and sexual with series like (the highly entertaining) Banshee.  The Knick is, in that way, fairly sterile, but it has a character to it that isn’t easy to define, and it feels like a step in the right direction for Cinemax (as HBO’s cousin) in developing interesting and unexpected series.  For those desiring something more civilized than the gangster stories of Boardwalk and Copper, and something a little more graphic than High Tea at DowntonThe Knick might be just the right prescription for what ails.

The Knick premieres Friday, August 8th at 10 p.m. ET on Cinemax, with weekly Collider recaps starting with episode three.

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