Director Steven Soderbergh may have retired from directing motion pictures, but if Cinemax’s The Knick is any indication that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With its first episode this series about New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital and the lives of its staff during the early part of the twentieth century is off to a very promising start. ‘Method And Madness’ was an expertly directed and paced episode that effectively set the stage for what’s to come, both during The Knick’s first season and the already confirmed second run of the show: a look at the messy beginnings of the hospital practices we know today through the experiences of some interesting and troubled individuals. Set to Cliff Martinez’s score that sounds like it was made for an ’80s science fiction film, The Knick offers viewers solid, intelligent and gory entertainment that’s unlike anything else on TV at the moment because of its unique subject matter.
Judging from the first episode it’s safe to say that Clive Owen’s main character Dr. John W. Thackery will be the mesmerizing presence at the center of the show. Owen brings a formidable presence to the part, an absolute requirement for this smart, assured and stern doctor, but he also conveys Thackery’s obsession with his work brilliantly, aided by some stellar writing. It’s impossible to take your eyes off Owen whenever he is on screen and ‘Method And Madness’ wonderfully illustrated that The Knick will peel back this character’s layers bit by bit to reveal to us who John Thackery really is and what set him on his particular path. A talented supporting cast also makes the scenes he’s not in a joy to watch, but Owen’s doctor is missed whenever the show focuses on its other characters; the screen simply sizzles when Thackery is either quarreling with the hospital’s benefactors, battling his own demons, trying to invent more helpful medical tools or is performing surgery. He simply exudes a raw energy that’s instantly captivating, but it makes the rest of the cast look rather tame by comparison.
What’s far more interesting than the secondary characters so far is The Knick’s look at turn-of-the-century health care and medical practices. The surgeons perform their tasks in front of an audience to hopefully stumble upon effective methods as they go, and the show’s depiction of this very messy search for what works and what doesn’t is very compelling but equally brutal. The Knick doesn’t shy away from showing blood, intestines and the various dated operational procedures, which means that a strong stomach is required to watch some of the series’ scenes. Equally interesting is the corruption of the officials who should oversee the public’s health, the audacity of paramedics who are willing to fight each other over the sick because they earn more money when they bring more people in, and the fact that the head of the Knick is trying to hook the hospital up with electricity, which means that at the show’s start everything in Knickerbocker Hospital is being run manually. It’s quite amazing to see what a long way health care and surgery have come since then and at times it’s even hard to believe that the series’ unflinching portrayal is so close to reality. This feeling of wonder and disbelief is reinforced further by Martinez’s unconventional score, but the outstanding production values and effects of the show always instill The Knick with a much-needed sense of authenticity, which in turn enhances the amazement you experience as you’re watching it. It’s played brilliantly.
The Knick’s first episode was a solid outing that effectively set up Clive Owen’s main character and the show’s unique and intriguing setting. 8/10