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Steven Soderbergh's 'The Knick' Isn't TV's Future, But It Makes You Feel Good About Its Present

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire August 6, 2014 at 12:05PM

The 19th century doctors in Steven Soderbergh's Cinemax series are medical pioneers, but Soderbergh;s just looking to put his own spin on a classic TV genre.
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Clive Owen in Steven Soderbergh's "The Knick"
Cinemax Clive Owen in Steven Soderbergh's "The Knick"

For Time's James Poniewozik, "The Knick," which stars Clive Owen as a New York surgeon pushing the boundaries of medicine at the tail end of the 19th century, is "a show about the future." For Vulture's Matt Zoller Seitz, it's "a statement about the past, and a warning about how the past can reclaim the present if we’re not careful." They're both right.

"The Knick," is a period piece by definition, but Steven Soderbergh, who directed, photographed and edited its entire 10-episode season — the latter two under his customary pseudonyms of Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard — avoids any sense of historical remove. Shooting with handheld digital cameras and making ample use of Cliff Martinez's emphatically electronic score, he transports us to the streets of Lower Manhattan in the year 1900, which, as it turns out, is a deeply fascinating and utterly terrifying place. Owen's John Thackery — "Thack" to his colleagues — is literally on the cutting edge of surgery, which at this stage is still being established as a legitimate branch of medicine, but from a present-day perspective, he's a monster, treating the afflicted who wind up in his operating theater as human guinea pigs and sometimes experiments on their freshly inert corpses. A low-hanging shot of a body left on the operating table with surgical instruments protruding from its open cavities resembles the Chesapeake Ripper's victims on "Hannibal."

This, we are quickly made to understand and frequently reminded, is how medicine progressed in those days (and to a less horrifying extent, still does): through trial and error, which in some cases is barely more scientific than flailing for a light switch in a dark room. Most of those who enter Knickerbocker Hospital, known to all and sundry as "the Knick," fail to come out alive, with conditions like appendicitis and placenta previa, now treated with simple procedures, tantamount to a death sentence. As Thack observes in a funeral oration for a fallen colleague, Death boasts "the longest winning streak in the history of the world."

New York itself is a dangerous place: A loan shark yanks out a man's tooth as a penalty for late payment; a police officer is stabbed in the street after a minor disagreement; even deserts can be deadly. Using a mixture of location shooting and digital effects — seamlessly blended, at least on Cinemax's standard-def screeners — Soderbergh and his crew effectively transport us to an era when Manhattan's streets still gave way to patches of hardened dirt and the townhouses of the wealthy were separated by tree-lined alleys. A few of the performances, especially David Fierro's health inspector and Danny Hoch's usurer, lean too hard on Bowery Boys mannerisms, but for the most part, it's striking how unselfconscious is the show's evocation of a bygone era. Although it's incessantly aware of how medicine will continue to progress — the only thing, really, that makes Thack's bloody experimentation bearable — it never condescends to his primitive techniques. (It does, however, make you wonder which of our proud present-day innovations will seem like butchery a century hence.)

"It's the future," Thack says of a new operating-room tool in one of "The Knick's" later episodes, and it's an idea that surfaces frequently in the seven episodes sent to critics in advance. It's evoked explicitly, sometimes in awe, sometimes by way of justification, and it's always implicit, in large ways and small. The appointment of the Knick's first black doctor, Algernon Edwards (André Holland), is a harbinger of future times, as is the arrival of the hospital's first x-ray machine. But so too is the hospital's need to solicit wealthy clients to keep itself financially solvent, and the concomitant institutional disdain for the poor and nonwhite. (Good thing we solved that one, right?) 

As Alan Sepinwall points out in his HitFix review, the one way "The Knick" doesn't look towards the future is as a TV show. While it unmistakably bears Soderbergh's imprint, it also feels like the quasi-retired auteur saw this as his opportunity to "do TV," including some of its most familiar beats. Lessons are learned, obstacles overcome, and while Soderbergh puts his own spin on them, you still know the drill. That's not such a bad thing, but it is a minor letdown, at least until you adjust to what "The Knick" is trying to do and give up on what it isn't. (For me, that took about four episodes; you may be quicker on the draw.) Much of the blame for that familiarity must fall on writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, whose C.V. includes such unambitious ventures as "Big Miracle," "Raising Helen" and a remake of "The Shaggy Dog." But the performances, from a cast that includes Juliet Rylance as a wealthy woman who begins to realize that her family's progressive politics stop short of woman's rights and Eve Hewson as a curious West Virginian nurse, have enough depth, and the show's design enough detail, that the plot turns you can see coming a mile away still arriving with significant force. "The Knick" isn't the future. But it makes you fell pretty good about the present.

"The Knick" premieres Friday, August 8 at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.

Reviews of "The Knick"

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

Where "The Knick" might have seemed an indescribable wonder even a few years ago — with Soderbergh's extended hands-on involvement such a contrast to, say, Martin Scorsese directing the "Boardwalk Empire" pilot and then disappearing back to the movie biz — it's now more notable for signaling a change in direction for Cinemax (which until now has focused on well-crafted pulp fiction like "Strike Back" and "Banshee") than it is for the medium as a whole. In a time of abundant greatness, it is very good — and gorgeously shot — but it's not as revolutionary as the men and women whose work it depicts.


Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter

This is a series that makes no rush to win support during its pilot, then audaciously walks the audience through another two hours of medical bleakness before arriving, in episode four, almost fully formed. That’s the HBO model to a scientific description, but in this case “almost” is an apt qualifier, because the series really arrives at its most important milestone by the sixth episode. By then, "The Knick" has fully enthralled with its merits.


Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post

Raises the bar even higher for Cinemax, in part by skillfully straddling the line between Prestige TV and the artful execution of one of TV's most stalwart genres.


Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly

For a period piece, it's strikingly contemporary — and quite gory, although the surgery scenes never feel gratuitous. This is a drama about an era of great change — in medicine, industrialization, and race relations — and it needs to show at least one botched C-section to capture just how far we've come.


Emily Nussbaum, New Yorker

It’s a historical reconstruction, although not always a careful one: at one point, a character refers to men “running trains” on a prostitute, an idiom that didn’t appear until mid-century. Often, the series feels reverse-engineered from network history, a fancied-up variation on “St. Elsewhere” or “House,” its familiar story beats disguised by propulsive editing and elegant long shots.


Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture

Not since "Deadwood" has a period-drama production designed to a fare-thee-well and steeped in nasty atmosphere been so politically astute about who has power over whom and why — ­although the subtler brand of gallows humor and Soderbergh’s fondness for intricately choreographed long takes aligns "The Knick" with a different TV classic that Deadwood creator David Milch worked on, "Hill Street Blues."


James Poniewozik, Time

It’s not pretty, and it’s only occasionally happy. Patients often die on the operating table, and those of you squeamish about gore will have a chance early to decide if this is the show for you. This is the New York not of Edith Wharton and Henry James — though we glimpse plenty of opulence — but of Jacob Riis and Luc Sante, full of ethnic bigotry and rat-baiting contests.


Chuck Bowen, Slant

"The Knick" is informed by a hypnotic sense of old newness that's reminiscent of "Deadwood." Soderbergh conjures a past era and parallels to present-day United States in a tour of a still-relevant caste system that allows the audience to sort out the contemporary resonances for itself. There's a great feeling of discovery to the series.

This article is related to: The Knick, Steven Soderbergh, Clive Owen


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