August 16, 2014

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “The Knick”


THE KNICK:  Friday 10PM on Cinemax

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at SHOWBUZZDAILY, we look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on THE KNICK:  New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital circa 1900 is a highly respectable institution, funded by wealthy benefactors and with a conscientious staff, but to modern eyes, it’s little more than a sewer, with “state of the art” operating procedures that seem savage and conditions that are primitive in general–the arrival of electricity is a major event.  Behind the scenes, things are even worse:  the Chief of Surgery, Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen), promoted after his mentor and boss committed suicide, is–while a brilliant surgeon–a dissolute opium and cocaine addict; his new deputy Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland), a black man hired over Thackery’s objections, is a victim of constant racism; and the entire hospital is run against a background of corruption that extends all the way to the ambulance operators, who charge per body delivered.

Episode 2:  There are many reasons why The Knick would have been unimaginable as a television series 10 years ago, and one is that until the advent of HDTV, its visuals would have literally been impossible to discern.  Part of the second episode’s plotline involved the substandard job that had been done in wiring the Knick for electric lighting–hospital adminstrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) had looted the contracted funds to pay off a loanshark–and director Steven Soderbergh, serving as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), made memorable use of darkness in the hour, exploring the capabilities of his digital camera to light some scenes seemingly with a single bulb or lamp, exposing tiny areas of visibility surrounded by stretches of shaded blackness.  It plunged the viewer into a sense of what it was actually like to live at the dawn of the 20th century, and that’s a spectacularly achieved goal of The Knick in general.

This week, settling down from the premiere’s need to introduce as many characters as possible, the script by series creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler provided much more detail about Dr. Edwards and his life as a surgeon barely tolerated by the rest of the hospital staff.  Although at this point, Thackery has no use for Edwards at all, it seems likely that by the end of the season, he’ll realize how formidable his deputy is.  The episode’s title, “Mr. Paris Shoes,” referred to Edwards (he’d bought his dapper pair while studying overseas), but while it was sneered at him by a fellow tenant in his Tenderloin (now known as Midtown) hovel, Edwards beat the man hall-dead in the hallway–and then considerately left some medication with the body.  Edwards has also started a surreptitious clinic for black patients in the Knick’s basement.

This kind of plotting isn’t unfamiliar, but Soderbergh, Amiel and Begler tell their story in the driest, most unsentimental way possible.  To some this will come off as “cold,” but actually it restores a reality to what could easily have been cliches.  Nowhere is that reality achieved more than in The Knick‘s surgery scenes, which in this episode featured the horrifying sight of a cauterizing iron shorting out due to the hospital’s shoddy wiring, setting a patient on fire while on the operating table.

The Knick didn’t perform very strongly for Cinemax in its debut (although, as is increasingly the norm, the network piled on runs–including one on HBO–and other forms of exposure to bump the cumulative audience up as high as possible).  It’s doubtful Cinemax ever expected otherwise for such a dark (in all senses) and serious enterprise.  The Knick, which has already been renewed for a 2d season, was meant to expand the public perception of Cinemax as a network, and give it some stature it had previously lacked.  In this, the excellent, unique drama appears to be filling Cinemax’s prescription admirably.


PILOT + 1:  Remarkable Auteurist Television


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."