Cinemax’s new series The Knick will cure bad Summer television
August could not have been a better time to launch ‘The Knick,’ a new series premiering on Cinemax later this month, that is just what the doctor prescribed to cure your reality-show dizziness and horrible summer-series depression.
The series itself is a period medical drama, bolstering the show even before it begins are the names attached to the project, director Steven Soderbergh and the star of the series Clive Owen. Cinemax may seem like an odd choice for such a prestigious show, but it’s the perfect direction for the network, one that has fallen behind it’s more popular siblings like HBO. It wasn’t by chance, Soderbergh himself chose Cinemax for the series, making it a sticking-point in his agreement to direct.
Steven Soderbergh was attached as the series executive producer, but he is also the director, and the haunting halls of the medical-wards are a perfect match for Soderbergh’s style. Soderbergh himself is coming off an amazing directorial run with the award-winning TV-movie ‘Behind the Candelabra’. This series is a little closer to a ‘Contagion’ meets ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ mash-up (both of which he directed at one point) and it’s a wonderful new take on the medical drama.
Soderbergh will direct all 10 episodes that will air in the first-season, all of which also star Clive Owen. The name of the series comes from the landmark hospital built around the 1900s right here in New York City, called the Knickerbocker Hospital. You will now know it as ‘The Knick,’ and it’s obviously the home of the series. It was once a beautiful and prestigious place, growing from humble beginnings in the midst of the Civil War into a truly worthy recipient of the namesake that help built it, but as time and neighborhoods changed in New York, the hospital fell into disrepair. That is where we begin our journey with The Knick.
In the series Dr. John Thackery (played by Owen), takes on the future responsibility of The Knick from his mentor and predecessor Dr. Christenson (played Matt Frewer). This is a tremendously horrid, and fascinating time in medical-technology and patient care. A unique moment in medical-history when more was being tried-and-tested, leading to new discoveries and practices, but also the foundations of nightmarish tales of patient suffering and “bad-medicine”. For every groundbreaking procedure there are a dozens deaths that lead to its discovery, for every preventative measure that is formed there are list of unsanitary practices, hand-cranked drills, cast-iron braces and iron saws used to carryout the surgeries.
This series was designed as a full piece, and the slow-moving plot-lines pay off in the end but it takes almost five episodes before the pieces really start coming together for the viewer. It’s a slow-cooked development process that has to be taken in-full, the show doesn’t pander to the ‘occasional viewer’ with quick b-story lines, or flashy gimmicks.
The show is nothing like any popular medical drama that is on television today, while it does spend time tackling issues that we still face (racism, sexism, or medical and religious freedoms) these are the moments in our history when these issues were in their most raw form. There’s now ‘wrap-up’ nicely package to be handed out with these issues, they existed, and The Knick is going to make you experience it. It’s hard to stomach, and I haven’t even begun to talk about the gore.
That’s not what the show is about though, it’s not about grossing out the audience or pushing an agenda, it’s about Dr. Thackery, Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), and Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance). It’s about success through failure, progression through regression, the tenacious human spirit and mind.
Our protagonist is what we would now call a drug-addicted Doctor, but he’s simply medicated at this time period. His progression through his shortcomings are carried out the same way his medical-treatments are formed, blindly testing and retesting himself with what he thinks will work. Owen’s Dr. John Thackery is relatable, broken and determined.
Chaos is a form of structure in this series, it becomes a constant throughout the episodes. Although characters, procedures and the city itself never stop spinning, Soderbergh’s exacting approach led me to believe that he was certainly going somewhere with each fallout, and although it may not have been where I thought, there was always a defiant conclusion to the story-lines.
Underneath the day-to-day story-lines and small plot-lines, there is the constant weight of progression. The mounting toll that is chipping away at anyone that tries to pursue the unachieved, or the believed in. It’s evident in the endless deaths that lead to new medical discoveries, the cringe-worthy moments of woman’s suffrage and racism in the facility, or just the horrid living conditions of early New York.
It’s difficult at times to judge the intent of the staff at The Knick, bordering constantly on the curious, the insane, and the determined; regardless of intent the outcome of all experiments sadly end the same.
Outside of the hospital electricity is slowly making its way into the homes an establishments of NYC, it too a consistent failure, one met with ingenuity of the residents more often than any efficient utility company.
Thackery is instantly painted as drug-user, a mix of cocaine and opiates to deal with the medical failures and death that he always surrounded with.
From the camera-work to the lighting, everything feels dirty, yet serves an exact purpose. There’s no over-the-top sweeping moments that you have to suffer through like other medical-dramas, the camera isn’t used as a plot device, simply as a looking glass.
Women in The Knick are not well written at first, they almost seem like they were shoehorned in at times. A few naked bodies flash across the screen, at times adding absolutely nothing to the actual scene or plot overall, but there is one saving grace in Cornelia Robertson (played by Juliet Rylance).
She is the prestigious daughter of one of the hospital’s chief benefactors, a pioneering woman for the times that doesn’t want to quit her work after marriage. She marries Harvard graduate Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) who takes the blunt of racial remarks, though is an obvious challenger to Thackery in his field.
Lucy Elkins (played by Eve Hewson) and Irish immigrant Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) round-out the female cast, all of which get more screen-time as the series progresses. (So do their actual characters).
The series is an excellent work in progress, one that you should add to your reminder list as soon as possible. It’s a hard-look at our past at times, but the sense of discovery and innovation that drove these doctors transcends time, and still fuels so many industries today. The show is set to premiere on FRIDAY, AUG. 8 (10:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT).