Having (temporarily?) given up feature films, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh has branched out to television to pursue the kinds of projects typically not funded by major Hollywood studios. He along with cast and crew were showered with Emmys last year for Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace biopic widely praised for its unsparing and honest portrayal of the famed pianist.
Soderbergh again looks to television this year for The Knick, an equally unsparing fictional account of very early 20th century medical practices and social customs at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital. The show, which airs on Skine… I mean Cinemax, wildly succeeds on so many levels that, if Soderbergh chooses to never make a feature film again, we can rest assured that he would bring the same focus and intelligence to any television project he pursued. That is if, in the case of The Knick, your stomach is game for the ride.
Centering on Clive Owen’s intense lead performance as cocaine-addicted Dr. John Thackery, The Knick draws upon the conceits of standard television hospital dramas (ER, Grey’s Anatomy, etc) and layers them with the socio-political climate of 1900 New York City. It also brilliantly depicts an unfortunate authenticity of medical treatments of the era, leaving me most grateful to be born in an era of modern medical practices. Given the two surgeries featured in the pilot episode, the cure almost seems far worse than the disease.
At the start, Thackery is promoted to chief surgeon after the suicide of his predecessor (Matt Frewer) who abruptly commits suicide after his twelfth failed Cesarean section using new procedures. As Thackery accepts the position, he immediately butts heads with the wealthy Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) who has controversially stepped into her ill father’s position on the hospital’s Board of Directors. Faced with an increased operating loss, the socially progressive Robertson forces the hospital’s hand in hiring Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), an extremely talented black surgeon, as Thackery’s right hand. Thus sets into motion the central conflicts of the show.
Setting aside the gore of the show for a moment, I found the pilot to be wholly absorbing and engaging. The setting may be 1900, but Soderbergh’s filmmaking hand gives it a nearly timeless feel. He employs the traditional hand-held Steadicam approach he loves and uses something of a synthesized soundtrack that feels more at home in the 1980s. The effect heightens the on-screen madness without feeling gimmicky or anachronistic, though it clearly is.
The performances all seem top-notch, not a surprise given Soderbergh’s talent with actors. Owen laces Thackery with both surgeon-level confidence (recalling Alec Baldwin’s surgeon from 1993’s Malice: “You ask me if I have a God complex. Let me tell you something: I am God.”) and with a near-debilitating remorsefulness. Also impressive in the smallish pilot role is Andrew Holland as the put-upon Edwards. It is difficult to watch a show featuring antiquated perspectives on race relations with a modern mindset, but Edwards isn’t giving only solemn dignity. He cracks through that persona in the end of the pilot, recognition the madness and talent within Thackery.
In an interesting side note, Bono’s daughter, Eve Hewson, also shows up in a supporting role as Lucy, a new nurse from West Virginia who has the most unfortunate task in the entire show: injecting a cocaine solution into Thackery’s penis. Don’t ask. Just watch.
That brings me to the reality of the medical practices. There is little argument that the show is very gory. The first ten minutes alone features all the expected blood and carnage of a botched C-section. Perhaps worse is the large intestines surgery that closes the episode. While I am not a huge fan of overt gore, I do realize the value and authenticity it brings the show. It will deter some, but it will attract others. For a show this assured in its greatest, it would be a shame for viewers to look away because of these scenes. In all its cringe-inducing, teeth-grinding moments, I cannot fault the show for featuring them. These scenes are as honest and essential to the proceedings as the horse-drawn carriages that litter the New York City streets outside. That is the brilliant authenticity that Soderbergh brings this show.
I honestly never thought I’d watch another hospital drama again, but Soderbergh has forced me to re-engage with the genre. If any of you were similarly disenchanted, then I highly recommend you consider The Knick.
You just may want to close your eyes for a moment or two. Maybe ten.