Cinemax, Strike Back’s American broadcaster, has teamed up with Hollywood director and screenwriter Steven Soderbergh (Behind the Candelabra, Magic Mike, and Ocean’s Eleven) for a ten-part early 20th century medical drama entitled The Knick. Steven Soderbergh not only directs every episode in series one but is also one of the show’s executive producers. HBO and its sibling network Cinemax must be enjoying a game of dueling directors in 2014. HBO struck first with Cary Joji Fukunaga directing the entire first series of True Detective and now Steven Soderbergh on The Knick.
At first glance it would be easy to dismiss The Knick as yet another period drama in a sea of shows containing Downtown Abbey, The Mill, The Village, and Mr. Selfridge. This reviewer certainly dismissed The Knick after seeing the trailer. The series was portrayed as a medical drama solely centered on an anti-hero. After watching the first episode I found myself in a thoroughly engaging world but slightly grossed out at times. Though the show is a medical procedural, character arcs and story threads continue from one episode to the next. The Knick’s strength lies within its cast and characters. The cast is supported by a contemporary (but haunting) score provided by former Red Hot Chili Pepper Cliff Martinez.
The Knick’s cast features a range of character actors and actresses who have appeared in a number of television series, films, and on stage. The biggest marketing draw besides Soderbergh is actor Clive Owen (Children of Men, Second Sight, and Shadow Dancer) portraying the lead character Dr. John Thackery. Thackery stems from the Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) mold of anti-hero or should I say anti-physician. Clive Owens character has little regard for anyone outside of peer group, which shrinks drastically after a character’s death in episode one. Like Gregory House, John Thackery requires a confidant. Filling the role of James Wilson is Dr. J. M. Christiansen (Orphan Black’s Matt Frewer). John Thackery’s induction into the Gregory House Society of Flawed Physicians would not be complete without a drug addiction. Thackery’s drug of choice is cocaine.
John Thackery visits Chinatown’s drug dens so frequently it becomes his home outside of the Knick. Viewers grow so accustomed to seeing John at the Knick or a drug den that it is odd when you see him at his house. Like so many of the anti-heroes before him, Thackery grapples with the ‘one who got away’ and the woman who views him as a redeemable human being. Hell on Wheel’s Jennifer Ferrin plays Thackery’s former girlfriend Abigail Alford. Ms. Alford comes to the Knick in episode three seeking John’s medical expertise. Eve Hewson’s character Nurse Lucy Elkins is continuously trying to look beyond Thackery’s narcissistic tendencies in order to find a caring and compassionate man. Clive Owen is an old hand at playing ego driven characters. Though in the case of The Knick I believe Owen gets an assist from his mustache.
The show is primarily situated around the Knickerbocker Hospital (aka the Knick) in New York City. Like the aforementioned Downton Abbey, the Knick is considered a character on the show. Many of the characters including Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb from Netflix’s House of Cards), the show’s corrupt Mr. Carson, refer to the hospital as if it was a living being. Herman Barrow is the Knickerbocker’s manager. However he is the type of individual who cleans the silverware then pockets a few pieces before putting it away. Barrow pays off New York City Health Inspector Jacob Speight (David Fierro) in the first episode. Viewers learn in episode two that Barrow has embezzled money from hospital projects such as the electrical upgrades. This results in a patient being set on fire while in the operating theatre. By the third and fourth episodes Herman is stealing and reselling the corpses of dead patients.
Skullduggery is not limited to the Knick’s business office. Skimming a bit of frosting from Barrow’s cake is the brutish ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan). Cleary collects bounties from Barrow for bringing wealthy patients to the hospital; he takes delight in injuring competing ambulance drivers in order to accomplish this task. Verbally torturing Sister Harriet (An Education’s Cara Seymour) is another one of Cleary’s pastimes. Episode four offers viewers an opportunity to spend some additional time within Cleary’s head. The audience learns that Cleary’s penchant for gambling extends to underground matches pitting humans against rodents. During this episode Cleary and Sister Harriet reach a new understanding, one that is financially favorable for Cleary.
Helping to keep the Knickerbocker’s ‘lights on’ and Barrow’s pockets lined with money is the Robertson family. Representing the family’s interests on the board is Cornelia Robertson (thespian Juliet Rylane). Though the Robertson’s money is welcome at the Knick, Cornelia is often seen as an interloper meddling in a ‘man’s affairs’. Not only does Cornelia serve on the board but is also the Knick’s social worker. Many of the males working inside the hospital consider this to be a more suitable role for Cornelia. If Cornelia could see into the future this reviewer is certain she would be disheartened to learn the glass ceiling still exists a hundred and fourteen years later.
Illnesses and diseases are colorblind but unfortunately the Knickerbocker’s staff is not inoculated against racism. From the moment Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland from the 2013 film 42) is brought onboard the Knick as the assistant chief surgeon he is besieged by racial slurs from patients and his colleagues including Dr. Thackery and Dr. Everett Gallinger (Smallville’s Eric Johnson). Edwards, whose parents work for the Robertson family, trained in Europe’s finest institutions but is constantly undermined by Thackery and Gallinger. Even though Algernon Edwards is the assistant chief surgeon he is not permitted to operate on patients; his office is housed in the hospital’s basement. Edwards maintains a cool exterior around his colleagues at the Knick but is seething with anger underneath. He quickly seeks ways to circumvent the system. Edwards opens a clinic for blacks in his basement office. In episode four Dr. Edwards tricked Thackery and Gallinger into utilizing his skills in the operating theatre. Actor Andre Holland is given the difficult task of creating a character that differs from Clive Owen’s but shares some traits. Both Thackery and Edwards are grappling with the pressures of their job but in different ways. John Thackery uses cocaine as his refuge while Algernon Edwards vents his anger during provoked and unprovoked physical altercations.
This reviewer believes Steven Soderbergh and Clive Owen’s names should be enough to get individuals to sample The Knick. The characters that populate the Knickerbocker Hospital will grab and hold your attention throughout the episodes. Warning…do not eat while watching the show, especially scenes involving the operating theatre. Steven Soderbergh is fixated on filming gory medical procedures. Also be prepared for some episodes to abruptly end. The final scene in episode three involves viewers looking at the world through Algernon Edwards’ eyes. However Soderbergh ends the episode in a confusing manner. Please keep in mind The Knick does not handle race relations with the same polite snobbery seen in Downton Abbey series four. Expletives are regularly used to describe Edwards (and other black characters). If you are sensitive to this type of language this show is not for you. Audiences looking for a contemporary medical drama with a 1900’s twist should take a chance on The Knick. This reviewer recommends that viewers stay for the drama not the cutting edge medical care.
The Knick is expected on Sky Atlantic
Contributed by Mo Walker