Clive Owen and Steven Soderbergh create a volatile dramatic mix in The Knick, the HBO-Cinemax series about turn-of-the-century surgeons that broke viewing records last year
The Knick: Season One
Starring: Clive Owen, Juliet Rylance, André Holland, Eve Hewson, Michael Angarano, Eric Johnson
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Cinemax/ HBO Home Entertainment
Available now on VOD, DVD, Digital HD, Blu-ray
By Katherine Monk
September 3, 2015 — It’s as addictive as the cocaine our lead character injects between his toes, and for that, we can thank the unsheathed thespian potency of Clive Owen. The 50-year-old English actor who emerged as a force in the wake of Croupier takes the gloves off for his portrayal of John Thackery, a turn-of-the-century surgeon trying to save lives at the Knickerbocker Hospital.
If he sounds like your standard soap opera doctor, you’re partly right. Dr. Thackery engages in all kinds of heroics, as well as sexual escapades, in his bid to be the very best doctor in all of New York City. The only problem is modern surgical technique hadn’t really been invented yet. Thackery is more likely to kill a patient than save one, which brings extra oomph to every scene in the first season of this 10-part Steven Soderbergh series.
The very first episode is destined to leave a scar or two as it shows Thackery and his mentor, Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer), speaking to a pregnant patient before they attempt a Caesarian section. “Save my baby,” she whimpers before the ether knocks her out. The bearded doctors offer a patronizing smile, watch her eyes close, and cut her open before a room of educated observers.
As the blood pours from her abdomen, all we hear is the sound of a hand-cranked suction machine that can barely keep up with the hemorrhage. The doctors proceed without emotion, explaining they only have 100 seconds before she exsanguinates. We expect a miracle, but she dies there on the table – along with her baby – a victim of early medical experimentation and the ego-filled souls who felt entitled enough to cut people open.
That’s why this show gets you so fast – it’s got the built-in suspense of all medical procedural dramas that pivot on specific patient vignettes, but it never lets you believe the doctors are omnipotent. Every character in this sprawling hospital drama is flawed in a believable way, from Dr. Thackery’s womanizing and drug addiction, to the hospital director’s mob debts, to the pretty young nurse’s forbidden desire for the swaggering chief of staff.
Everyone is playing with identity, and everyone knows it. It’s a time of manners, after all. All things ugly were swept under tightly knotted carpets because the new century was bright and shiny, full of hope and possibility in the radiating beams of an electric light bulb.
When the series begins, the Knick is in the process of getting wired up for Edison’s great invention. It’s a big contract requiring extra funds from the hospital’s great patron, a tycoon plucked from the board of a Monopoly game who has regular run-ins with the ever-groveling hospital director.
These tend to be the scenes that offer the most humour—but not a typical TV show kind of comedy. Some of the funnier moments include an X-ray that takes over an hour, a smoking nun who performs abortions, and Thackery’s endlessly competitive drive that has him accusing every other surgeon of lying, stealing and eclipsing his glory – especially the ones at the Jewish hospital.
Yes, it was a different America back then: It openly acknowledged it was full of religious and racial prejudice, and people spoke about it. Thackery doesn’t like having an African American doctor on staff, but the hospital patrons are progressive—and it makes for good fodder as Soderbergh turns back the pages of history to show us a world that’s still vaguely recognizable.
Pulling from archival photographs and, it would seem, a day at the NYC Tenement Museum, Soderbergh and the production designers recreate turn of the century street scenes in painstaking detail. And perhaps that’s the biggest thrill in watching The Knick: It’s like travelling backward in time and landing in the middle of Central Park, when every vehicle was a horse-drawn carriage and every brownstone, greystone and brick building had fresh mortar. The advertisements painted on brick warehouse walls were crisp and full of colour and hospital floors covered linoleum looked modern.
There is so much love and care in the recreation, it almost feels like Soderbergh is fulfilling a long-held fantasy of seeing the Big Apple in the era of tophats and parasols. It’s an easy piece of eye candy to suck on because anyone who’s ever travelled to New York has probably wondered what it looked like back in the day.
Using computer graphics and real locations, the team makes it all seamless, and it gives the cast an extra boost of authenticity as they find the right balance between the manners of the time, and the timeless human condition. For fans of medical dramas, or those involved in the business of health care, The Knick should be considered prescribed viewing because if you think things are a little dysfunctional now, they were downright sick before.
Special features for the DVD version of Season One include extra information about the various surgical procedures pioneered in the show, as well as audio commentary with the cast and crew.