By Caryn James | James on Screens August 8, 2014 at 8:56AM
"The Knick" is "House, M.D." set in 1900, a medical drama about a brilliant, junkie doctor, an American played by a charismatic British actor. Clive Owen's character, John Thackery, might have been an ancestor of Hugh Laurie's House, right down to his impatience with fools and preference for prostitutes over messy emotional entanglements. And while Steven Soderbergh's brisk direction, visual audacity and attention to the nuances of acting -- his characters reveal much more than their words express -- elevate the series, "The Knick" never quite overcomes its contrived stories and scripts. The series builds in strength as it goes along; I've seen seven of the season's 10 episodes, and was fascinated after two. But you have to overlook a lot of hoary elements to get there. So far "The Knick" (on Cinemax) is a conventional hospital drama dressed up in period clothes.
It is, like "House," terrific as conventional dramas go. The hospital known as The Knick is a place of dark but glistening corridors and jaw-dropping medical treatments. A former girlfriend of Thackery's is helped by having her arm temporarily grafted onto her nose. The Lower East Side of New York is depicted as a place of muddy streets, dingy bars and horse-drawn carriages which the wealthy use to escape to their more graceful, Edith Wharton worthy homes.
Soderbergh's best choice might have been casting Owen as the driven surgeon always pushing for new discoveries. Thackery is tough, self-indulgent and flawed, yet Owen displays a depth of humanity -- and an as yet unexplained pain -- that engages our sympathy. The rakishly disheveled hair doesn't hurt; what good is a genius doctor in a medical series if he's not also devilishly sexy?
And he is at center of some amazing set pieces that Soderbergh stages with flair while maintaining a sense of period realism. The first episode includes a stunning scene in which Thackery's mentor frantically tries to save a pregnant woman's life in the operating room, where men in suits observe from the bleachers (you realize why it's called an operating theater), while blood gushes everywhere.
In one of the strongest and most subtle subplots, Thackery is gradually developing a delicate relationship with Lucy, a young nurse from West Virginia. They did not get off to an auspicious start. In agonized withdrawal from the liquid cocaine that allows him to function, he had to ask her to inject a syringe into his penis. (He later apologized; he may be a mess, but he's a gentleman.) Eve Hewson gives a lovely performance as Lucy, who's both shy and daring, and secretly tough enough to handle Thackery.
But Soderbergh has often been reckless in choosing screenplays, as he is here. When he has a fresh and sparkling script, as he did with Richard LaGravanese's "Behind the Candelabra", it supports all his strengths. If it's weak, you get the promising but in the end banal thriller "Side Effects."
"The Knick," created and written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, casts too much contemporary, often smug knowledge on the past. There is Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), a rich young woman who serves on the hospital's board; she conspicuously bristles at her fiance's assumption that she will quit this trivial work when they marry. There is the talented black surgeon, Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), whom she insists the hospital hire as Thackeray's deputy. There is an unlikely, unrepentant abortionist who helps impoverished women. Sexism, racism, reproductive rights – all the boxes are checked. Any one of those plots might have worked to allow some light from the future to illuminate all that turn-of-the-20th-century darkness. Together, they make "The Knick" overwrought. The brutal yet casual racism faced by the black doctor feels real; the fact that he exists in this series feels forced.
In the end, Soderbergh and Owen together create a series alluring enough to make its flaws seem like pesky disappointments rather than fatal problems. And the series has already been renewed for a second season. Most series get more forced and overloaded as they go along. "The Knick" started there, which leaves room for it to relax into its characters and its dramatic strengths, to stop trying so hard to be relevant, to evolve from good to great.