The Knick doesn’t offer up a particularly original scenario. There have been shows based around hospitals for years, using the location to explore the relationships, biases, and personal demons that haunt the doctors, nurses, and administrators that populate it. And we have just about reached unsustainable levels of dramas that center on a hyper-talented individual punching (often wildly) at the dullards, naysayers, and penny-pinchers getting in the way of his/her work.
The problem with all of those shows is that they don’t have Steven Soderbergh as a showrunner, or Clive Owen in the lead role. Both are working at the top of their respective games here, with all the calm and surety of a tai chi master. They express so much with the slightest of movements and inflections (Soderbergh serves as both DP and editor on the show, as he has done on his feature films for the past 15 years), and leave a huge impact in their wake.
The opening scenes set this precedent beautifully. When we first get a full glimpse of Owen’s character Dr. John Thackery, he’s stumbling out of an opium den, bowler hat on his head and sunglasses shading his eyes. He looks like some turn-of-the-century rock star, with attitude to spare. He tersely directs a cabbie to take the long way to the show’s titular hospital where he presides as assistant chief of surgery. This gives him ample time to inject himself between the toes with a cocaine solution. The movements of Owen and the camera are fluid and economical, not wasting a beat and filling the scene with a sense of impending tragedy.
That comes quickly when Thackery and his superior officer J.M. Christensen preside over a caesarean section that results in a copious loss of blood (all of which is being pumped into glass bottles by a hand-cranked machine), and the death of both mother and child. Christensen (veteran character actor Matt Frewer), internally shaken by the experience, calmly goes into his office and puts a bullet in his brain.
From here, The Knick swoops quietly around to introduce us to the many characters that will populate its ten episodes. There’s Herman Barrow, the hospital administrator desperately trying to keep the lights on in the building—literally; Cornelia Robertson, the board member who holds the purse strings for the Knick’s future; Thackery’s colleagues Bertie Chickering and Everett Gallinger; crooked ambulance driver Tom Cleary; and Sister Harriet, a nun who looks after the maternity ward.
The most important introduction is that of Algernon Edwards, an African-American doctor being called into to take over as assistant chief of surgery after Thackery is given his mentor’s job. Considering the time period, you can imagine how well this goes over (it speaks volumes that one of the most horrifying moments in a blood-drenched episode is when Barrow refers to him as a “dusky coon”). Thackery does everything short of physically removing Edwards from the building, but the young doctor decides to stay and face the abuse after bearing witness to his potential boss repair a botched intestinal operation.
Having watched a few episodes already, I can safely say that Soderbergh and the show’s chief scriptwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler use the tenor of the era’s race relations to fine effect. But at the outset, I was worried that this was going to be a Django Unchained situation, with all three trying to take a superior moral attitude as they filled the dialogue on screen with as many racial epithets as they could come up with.
There’s also an equally understated approach to showing how primitive all the medical procedures seem. The hand-cranked suction machine was slightly startling, but not more so than the amount of blood that was pouring out of the poor woman on the operating table. They stay true to the times, but not to the detriment of the storytelling—a subtlety that the show’s promotional campaign could use more of.
The Knick is uniquely engrossing television, dropping you in the heart of New York City circa 1900, but giving you little time to gawk at the strict attention to detail. You’re quickly swept up into this intense and impressive plot, following each step of each character, with deep interest and curiosity. You’re in the assured hands of some of the best storytellers in the business. Trust in them, and you’ll have much to applaud at the end of this first hour.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.