This past Friday cable network Cinemax aired the first episode of it’s new show The Knick. Set in New York City in 1900, the show follows a premiere surgeon Dr. John Thackery and his work at the Knickerbocker Hospital. Thackery is played by Clive Owen, and the show is directed by Steven Soderbergh. This is to say that this is, by all accounts, a prestige project for Cinemax and is their gambit (along with the show Banshee) to break into the original programming game.
Original programming can be hard to get right, especially period pieces. Just ask AMC how Halt and Catch Fire and Turn are going. Also, does a channel that is better known for it’s “After-Dark” programming, (at least among teenage boys… and people who once were teenage boys) including such stand-out titles as Lingerie and Topless Prophet, really have the resources and talent to make a seriously good show? I would normally say no, but somehow the network snagged a fantastic lead in Owen and one of the more visually creative directors in Soderbergh and I think that the combination of these two are going to make The Knick an incredibly watchable show.
Owen has always had charisma and depth to his roles, whether in serious movies like Children of Men, or in lighter fair like the severely underrated Shoot ‘Em Up. Both of these qualities are almost immediately apparent in this show. It opens with Owen’s character, Dr. Thackery (“Thack”) asleep in an opium den after a long night of using. Upon being awakened, he proceeds immediately to the hospital for a surgery, prepping himself with a good jolt of cocaine to the toes. The look of the den, of New York City in 1900, of the operating theater, and of Thack before and after a hit of coke, they all look wonderful. It’s a beautiful show to look at.
The surgery is something to do with a pregnant women whose baby is breached, I think, (full disclosure, I know jack about medical procedures) and this is the latest attempt of this particular surgery that Thack and his superior, Dr. J.M. Christensen have attempted. The surgery scenes are brutal and gross and extremely graphic. There’s lots of blood to look at, lots of fake abdomens being sliced open, lots of meaty bits flying around. It makes your very thankful for the fact that you live in 2014 and not 1900, I promise. When the surgery fails, and both mother and babe perish, the good Dr. Christensen is so distraught that he takes his own life. This makes Dr. Thackery the head of surgery at the Knick.
The middle of the episode, while beautiful to look at and filled sonically with a subtle, but effective, techno/EDM soundtrack, didn’t have a lot of interesting things to offer quite yet. There are several characters introduced like a tawdry nun, a couple of knuckle-headed ambulance drivers, and a corrupt health official, but all of the action away from the hospital felt like time wasted to me. There could very well be some interesting story lines that come from these characters, but none of them were apparent in the first episode.
The main plot, once Thack has been promoted, is that the rich benefactors of the hospital–the Robinson family, I think–want him to hire an extremely well-qualified black surgeon, Dr. Algernon Edwards, as his assistant chief. He resists, of course, because this is 1900 America and that was how they apparently rolled, but in the end is forced to accept Edwards as an assistant for financial reasons. Andre Holland, the actor who plays Dr. Edwards, seems to be a pretty good actor and did well with what he was given in the script. The race relations in the hospital seem as though they’re going to play a major role in the season and it will be interesting to see where they go with it. There are several obvious, well-tread story lines they could use but I’m hoping for something a little more original; we shall see.
The other big story line is that Thack is kind of an addict. Near the end of the episode a patient who’d had his bowels repaired once is suffering from a bad infection from his first surgery. When Dr. Thackery can’t be found his colleagues send a nurse to fetch him at his house. She finds him there suffering badly from withdrawal. As it is clear that he is urgently needed, he demands that she give him an injection of cocaine since he can’t. In an, almost, indescribably funny and cringe worthy scene, she discovers that the veins in his arms and feet have collapsed from overuse, so she gets to inject him… how do I put this… in the dick.
When Dr. Thackery makes it to surgery, his wizardry in the operating theater is so amazing as to convince Dr. Edwards to stay on at the hospital, even though he’s been insulted repeatedly and is clearly unwanted. To him the opportunity to learn the craft from the Keith Richards of turn-of-the-century surgery is worth all of the trouble. The first episode ends where it began, with Thack headed back to the Opium Den to get his fix.
The show is well-acted, decently paced (almost no show gets this right off the bat), and looks really good. Soderbergh (director of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Erin Brockovich, Contagion, Ocean’s Eleven, and Magic Mike) came out of retirement to make this show almost immediately after he had retired, and you can see why. This show definitely has potential and is far more interesting than any other show I’ve seen debut this summer. If some interesting story lines evolve, the talent both on- and off- screen is enough to make this a special show. Also, if the great acting and writing don’t do it for you, there’s more blood and guts in the first episode of this show than in most episodes of The Walking Dead. Between the blood, babes, bowels, and blow there’s something here for everyone, and that’s a win in my book.
Watch the entire first episode, “Method and Madness” free online: