The Knick is the best bloody show on television. The season 1 finale aired last week, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Truthfully, I’ve been a fan since the first episode got under my skin (see what I did there?), and this is less of a review and more of a gushing love letter. And I’m not alone:
“The Knick is such modern television it’s like a shot of cocaine between the toes.” The AVClub
Set on the cusp of the modern age, 1900 New York was a time of dreadful contrast. While the super wealthy were entertained with parlor demonstrations of new technology by Thomas Edison, the poor labored in factories and lived in infested slums, and nearly everybody was on the take. These worlds collide in Steven Soderbergh’s vision of the Knickerbocker Hospital on the eve of electrification – quite the metaphor.
The story: the hospital’s benefactor pays to wire up the building with electricity. In exchange, his daughter sits on the board, and she appoints a promising young doctor as deputy chief of surgery. The conflict: new doctor is a BLACK man, and the new boss is a WOMAN!
On the surface, it’s like House, MD set at the turn of the last century. Clive Owen plays a brilliant but deeply flawed chief surgeon, who is as addicted to the adrenaline rush of the operating room as he is to the liquid cocaine he plunges through his veins. In the opening episode, his character Dr John Thackery insists that this is a wonderous time to work in medicine, that more scientific advances have been made in five years than in the last 500 years. But this is not a “disease of the week” show. This is a lush period piece with complex characters that richly unfolds over the arc of ten episodes. The Knick is beautifully shot giving the impression of period lighting, which is both intimate and eerie. Horrifying close ups of brutal medical procedures are highlighted by the anachronistic soundtrack of Cliff Martinez, whose synth-heavy score is a nod to the modern era to come.
Though the conceit of the story is a modern one, the series is firmly rooted in history and also inspired by it. The Knick weaves well-known events into its storylines. Thackery is based on a real person, William Stewart Halstead, a medical genius, one of the founders of John Hopkins Hospital, and a cocaine addict. During the course of the first season, new medical devices like the vacuum suction pump and an x-ray photographic apparatus are introduced. And here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Typhoid Mary is a total delight.
The casting of The Knick is where it all comes together. The breakout performer for me is Andre Holland who plays Dr Algernon Edwards with such dignity and determination. His face has a remarkable way of exploring his emotions as he suffers the indignities of racism. His is a heartbreaking role. Juliet Rylance gently conveys the tension between wanting to make her mark on board of the hospital and having to accept her role in the home. Clive Owen doesn’t shy away from this warts and all performance. And by the way, he could still rescue me in flip flops any time.
The Knick is the only reason I subscribed to Cinemax, and it will be the only reason I sign up for it again next season.
PS My buddy Chris Connolly and the team at Phosphene FX did an incredible job with the special effects that keep the series soundly anchored in the macabre era of New York City, a century ago.