August 9, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “The Knick”


THE KNICK:  Friday 10PM on Cinemax – DVR Alert

It’s yet another measure of where television is these days in relation to movies that Steven Soderbergh, the main figure behind Cinemax’s new historical medical drama THE KNICK, found his ambitions too big for the big screen.  Soderbergh is now “retired,” which has turned out to mean that he works non-stop on absolutely everything except the making of films for theatrical release.  He’s as capable as anyone of turning out sophisticated mainstream successes (the Ocean’s heist movies, Erin Brockovich, Contagion, Magic Mike), but he grew sick of a process that took years to line up the financing for a feature film (which would then disappear if one of the creative elements dropped out), and ladled on so many millions in production and (especially) marketing costs that even a movie earning over $100M could easily be labeled a “failure.”   In television, a project is often pitched, written, produced and aired within a single year or so, and while budgets are limited, so are the financial risks.

In addition to all that, though, Soderbergh has always been a grand experimentalist with form and genre, and industry tolerance for that kind of individuality has grown less and less in today’s Marvel-ized movie economy.  Soderbergh’s Che was essentially a TV miniseries produced as a feature, and his Traffic, based on a TV project to begin with, has become the unofficial model for any number of contemporary cable dramas.  Soderbergh has toyed with television before, notably with the semi-improvised political lobbyist series K Street, and his Beyond the Candelabra for HBO swept the last awards season, but The Knick represents his deepest involvement to date, directing, photographing and editing–the latter tasks under his usual pseudonyms, Peter Andrews and Mary Anne Bernard–each one of its 10 episodes (and committing to do the same for Season 2, which the network has already ordered).

The Knick is an enormous swing for Cinemax, too, by far the most artistically ambitious programming the network has ever aired, and one calculated not to get huge ratings (it won’t) but to bring Cinemax closer to its giant older sibling HBO in stature and reputation.  The first hour of The Knick suggests it will do exactly that.

The title refers to the Knickerbocker Hospital of downtown New York in 1900, a time when electricity was still a luxury, and cars were “horseless carriages.”  More to the point, it was an era when surgeons performed their operations without gloves, and blood was hand-pumped from open wounds.  The scientists of the time knew themselves to be at the precipice of a new, far deeper understanding of the human body and its ailments, but to our eyes, their practices weren’t far short of barbarism.  (The first episode begins with just about the most brutal depiction of a Caesarian you’ll ever see.)  The medical side of the Knick’s operation is overseen by Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), a brilliant surgeon who’s also a ruined cocaine addict–that cable anti-hero staple, a dissipated man of honor.  He’s forced, by the liberal financiers of the hospital, to take on a black deputy, Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), whose arrival stirs up all manner of ugliness.  (It’s not that Thackery is a racist, exactly, but that he sees Edwards’ presence as another unwelcome distraction from his work.)

It’s important to note that while Soderbergh is the powerhouse behind The Knick, he’s neither the series creator nor one of the writers.  The show is the work of Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, whose previous work has mostly been in the family comedy area (Big Miracle, the remake of The Shaggy Dog, The Prince and Me).  They deserve full credit for the swift delineation of characters, not just Thackery and Edwards, but sympathetic southern nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), hospital bureaucrat Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), and corrupt Health Department inspector Jacob Speight (David Fierro).  Amiel and Begler’s dialogue is intelligent throughout, and manages to sound believably of its era without being stilted about it.

Nevertheless, it’s Soderbergh’s work here that really sets The Knick apart. Working with production designer Howard Cummings and costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, he’s created a ravishing visualization of New York at the turn of the 20th century, one that looks like period photographs come to life.  (Although Soderbergh doubtless had more money to work with, his period New York here puts the one in BBCAmerica’s Copper to shame.)  Soderbergh has never been one simply to replicate, though, and one of his most daring touches here is to incorporate an extremely modern electronic score by Cliff Martinez, which constantly reminds us that we’re watching a 21st-century look at the last century.  (Soderbergh also expertly uses a hand-held camera, not swinging and shaking it all over the place like a Sundance newbie, but with just enough movement to provide a cinema verite feel to the historical setting.)  His work with the actors is, as always, invisible and exquisite.  The lead role is perfect for Owen, who’s always come across as a bit too cold and detached for the mainstream stardom many predicted for him 10 years ago; here, his character’s arrogance and drug addiction make those qualities fit exactly.  Holland and Hewson make strong impressions in their relatively brief appearances in the first hour, and Matt Frewer, as Thackery’s mentor, is a welcome presence when, despite his death early on in the hour, he returns to Thackery as a ghost or memory.

The Knick is an unapologetically serious piece of work, and fans of Banshee aren’t likely to flock to it.  It quickly establishes itself, however, as yet another piece of first-rate television drama, marking Soderbergh as an auteur of the small screen as well as the big one, and Cinemax as a new home for quality drama.

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."