October 17, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “The Knick”


THE KNICK:  Friday 10PM on Cinemax

Even at a time of unprecedented quality on television, when the complaint is that there’s just too much good content to watch, Cinemax’s THE KNICK was something special last season.  It served as a reminder that in the right hands, a story that sounds initially unpromising–the saga of a struggling New York hospital, its denizens, and the changes in medical and social mores at the turn of the 20th century–can be utterly enthralling.  The scripts, largely by series creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, do a superb job of mixing stranger-than-fiction history with strong characters, and even if they had worked with conventional creative partners, their show would have been well worth watching.  As it happened, though, the pair hit the lottery by drawing Steven Soderbergh as their all-encompassing creative leader.  He serves as director, cinematographer and editor (the latter 2, as is customary with him, under pseudonyms), as well as lead Executive Producer of every episode, and his work is jaw-dropping.

Soderbergh is currently in “retirement” from the big screen, where he grew frustrated at the studio process, with its projects that spend years in development and, when finally made, have to conform to mainstream commercial norms to make back their hefty investments.  Cinemax made a deal with him similar to the one FX gave Louis C.K.–they gave Soderbergh a tight budget and an accelerated production schedule (which one would never imagine possible in the light of what he achieves on screen) and beyond that a creative blank check.  The result is unlike anything on big screen or small.  Soderbergh was one of the first major filmmakers to wholly embrace digital technology, and it may well be that no one in the business knows more about the capabilities of the equipment.  (Watching the director on this season’s Project Greenlight stubbornly insist that he wouldn’t deign to work in digital as not up to his exacting standards, one wished the producers had forced him to watch a few episodes of The Knick.)  Soderbergh achieves not just a “cinematic” look, but one that uses actual light (which, given the period, is generally at low levels) without sacrificing visual clarity or depth, emerging with images that recall the glories of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.

Soderbergh, though, isn’t after mere recreation of the period, although The Knick makes one feel that the settings we’re watching are merely fragments of an entire world outside the boundaries of the frame.  (Soderbergh can’t do everything himself, even if he’d probably like to, and the show’s production design is by Howard Cummings, with costumes by Ellen Mirojnick.)  His camerawork, now intricately choreographed for lengthy sequences, now cut in jittery counterpoint, plays along with Cliff Martinez’s brilliant abstract, modernist score and a dense sound design to make one constantly aware of the fact that we’re watching this carefully crafted world from a distance of more than a century.  Soderbergh isn’t after a lulling sense of history but a disruptive one; he wants us to recognize the ways in which the Knick’s time is and isn’t different from our own.

It’s unfortunate that Soderbergh’s mastery of the medium has made some underestimate Amiel and Begley’s work in favor of giving him the lion’s share of the series credit.  The dramatic substance of The Knick still belongs to them, and they pick up Season 2 with barely a pause from last season’s finale.  When we rejoin the action, our antihero Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) has entered a sanitorium where, as we learned in the finale, his cocaine addiction would be treated with the new wonder drug heroin.  Not surprisingly, this course of action hasn’t helped him any.  Luckily for him, Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson), desperate not to have to return to the Knick after his own personal tragedies as subordinate to the black interim Head of Surgery Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland), kidnapped Thack and kept him on his boat until he’d gone cold turkey–not recovered, but able to function again.  Edwards, for his part, discovered that he suffered from a detached retina after last season’s fight.  After a stint in San Francisco that featured her selling family jewelry to buy food for Chinese immigrants quarantined against the bubonic plague, Edwards’ old flame Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) returned to New York–unfortunately to find herself living with her menacing father-in-law.

The other characters were more or less as we’d last seen them.  Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), awaited trial for the abortions she’d been performing.  A dark scene where she was renounced by her former Mother Superior was balanced by one of the few genuine if unlikely friendships of The Knick, the one between Harriet and the constantly scheming ambulance driver Cleary (Chris Sullivan).  Hospital administrator Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), still paying off his loanshark, was about to get into the business of having the hospital provide medical services to prostitutes in order to reduce his debt.  Health inspector Jacob Speight (David Fiero) was on the track of another epidemic, this time the plague.  Meanwhile, preparations were underway for the groundbreaking of the new Knick, to be built in uptown Manhattan and cater to a higher class of clientele.

The Knick is consistently fascinating as social and historical drama and as an amazing recreation of early 20th-century medical practices (there’s a nose job in the premiere to make anyone wince), and as filmed by Soderbergh, it’s also perhaps the most immersive experience currently offered by any scripted work, no matter what size the screen.  It’s not likely to ever be a widely popular hit–thankfully, Cinemax is a subscription platform that’s happy to bask in the project’s prestige–but it’s as good as television, even today’s exalted television, ever gets.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."