TV Review: “The Knick” – Could Use More Time Under the Knife

Written by Spencer Sterritt September 09, 2014

The Knick, Clive Owen, Steven Soderbergh

After “Strike Back” and “Banshee,” Cinemax is making a real attempt at high profile original content with “The Knick.” Created and written by Jack Amiel and Michael Bengler and, most importantly, directed by Steven Soderbergh, “The Knick” tries to be a definitive Tortured Anti-Hero show, but the most interesting developments are with the tortured heroes.

The Knickerbocker Hospital, located in Harlem at the turn of the 20th century, houses all of the soap opera-esque drama of “The Knick.” Clive Owen returns to television after a long absence to play brilliant but troubled (and cocaine addicted) Chief Surgeon John Thackery. As we are often told but rarely shown, Dr. Thackery is the best. Even the best doctor in the city cannot save the hospital from financial woes, however, so to appease the hospital’s most generous benefactor – an African-American doctor named Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland) – is made Assistant Chief Surgeon. This sets everything off.

God has a rival

“The Knick,” both the show and the location, sprawls in every direction. Unfortunately, Dr. Thackery isn’t compelling enough to hold everything together. Clive Owen sells the Hell out of him, but he feels assembled to fit the standard Tortured Genius mold. He will be an asshole for nearly an entire episode or, as in the pilot, afflicted with cocaine withdrawl. When the time comes for him to be the hero at the end of the episode he’s there, exactly like we knew he would. Once he gets out of the way the more interesting aspects of “The Knick” come to light. Not all of the myriad of plots are riveting, but Sister Harriet’s B-story of her being an abortionist during such volatile times is compelling, and Dr.Edwards’ experiences in the racially charged New York of  the1900s is fantastic and sickening to witness.

The Knick, racism

Many period dramas address the racism of the past, but “The Knick” stands as the best representation so far. Often characters will be too forward-thinking to stave off the overwhelming racism; think of Freddie Lyons (Ben Wishaw) on “The Hour” or Stanley Mitchell (Matthew Goode) in “Dancing on the Edge.” “The Knick” has no such character. No one is too forward or backward thinking for the sake of plot. Everyone’s a racist, in ways both big and small, and one of the main points of “The Knick” is to tease out every racial slight and reflect it back to us.

“I changed my routine and suffered for it. It won’t happen again.”

“The Knick” most resembles HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” which was supposed to be their grandest foray into the Tortured Anti-Hero genre. Both shows feature astounding production design that brings out the nuance of the past. The Harlem streets are constantly buzzing, and sweeping exterior shots show that Cinemax threw a lot of money at “The Knick.” Unfortunately, similar to “Boardwalk Empire” all of that cash hasn’t brought out the viewers, with “The Knick” hovering around .4 million viewers per episode. The detail in the medical scenes is incredible as well, and at times downright nasty. The opening scene of an experimental caesarean section nearly made me faint, and several shots in the most recent episode “Where is the Dignity” of a woman recovering from nasal reconstructive surgery forced me to stop eating. Gore is one thing, but “The Knick” gets to the core of what made pre-modern medicine so brutal in order to create some truly disturbing scenes.

The Knick

She has to stay like that for weeks.

Whereas “Boardwalk Empire” had Martin Scorsese for the pilot, “The Knick” has Steven Soderbergh for the entire run, and he proves to be the series’ saving grace. His distinctly modern touch livens up the show, and creates a nifty parallel to Thackery, as the doctor tries to use the newest medical inventions to solve the problems of the past. It may be disconcerting at first to hear Soderbergh-regular Cliff Martinez’s ambient electronic score over scenes of horse drawn carriages ferrying those in top hats, but it ensures that “The Knick” looks like nothing else you will ever see.

“From such humble beginnings to the astonishing modern world in which we now live.”

Soderbergh and his intimate avant-garde aesthetic is enough to keep “The Knick” interesting, but the show still falters on many fronts. Without Dr. Thackery at the center it could be a much better show, perhaps with Dr. Algernon as the main character. The whole Tortured Anti-Hero genre has been slowly dying for some time now, and “The Knick” represents the latest show to offer increasingly diminutive returns.

My Rating: 6/10

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About Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt: former Editor-In-Chief for We Eat Films, future President of the Men With Beards Club, and hopefully candidate for ruler of the world.

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