I’m starting to think that Clive Owen and Steven Soderbergh are too good for this show. The uncomfortable dialogue that Owen and his fellow actors are forced to recite is only getting more and more awash with stumbling turns of phrase and bold proclamations. And it detracts from the amazing look and feel of this show that takes you into the world of New York ca. 1900 with such assuredness.
The cinematography, editing, and bold directorial choices (all Soderbergh’s doing) might be the thing to keep these proceedings afloat, as evidenced by a wild opening sequence that finds Tom overseeing a horrifying underground entertainment event that pits one man against a mischief of rats. Through it, the camera swirls and swoops to dizzying effect, putting you right in the middle of this strange and bloody contest.
Soderbergh matches that visual vigor later during an essentially unnecessary flashback sequence where Thackery tries to drunkenly recite Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” while his girlfriend Abigail chides him. Through it, the camera keeps up close on the character’s sweaty faces, and wobbles a bit to match their celebratory spirit. It’s only when they decide to leave for more revelry that it pulls back to reveal a colorful Christmas party going on around them.
Those few little moments of spark weren’t enough though to aid in an episode bogged down by the stumbling racial politics that are now being shoehorned into the story. This came out glaringly in the scene when Edwards walks his colleagues through the procedure to clear up a patient’s aneurysm. At a certain point, he stands silently, knowing that without his help, the man under the knife is going to bleed to death. Dr. Gallinger eventually gives way, and lets Edwards finish the operation, only to punch him in the face afterwards.
Worse are the horrified looks on the faces of people at a dinner party that Edwards is invited to, wondering what he’s doing consorting with the hoi polloi. And then there’s the question from Dr. Chickering’s little sister about whether any of Edwards’ “black” came off on Gallinger’s hand when he delivered the punch. Relations between African-Americans and whites are an important part of the landscape of a city like New York, but these scenes feel so mannered. Like they’re trying way too hard to make sure that The Knick be an “issues” show that tackles important subjects, while avoiding what we really tune into see: the primitive means by which these doctors used to save patients’ lives.
I’m also not at all sure where the show is going with Nurse Lucy following Thackery to his den of iniquity in Chinatown, nor the strange arrangement that Tom makes with Sister Harriet to split the profits from her abortion services, as long as he finds the women needing help first. The more they veer away from the hospital itself, the less interesting The Knick becomes.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.