There are some artists – in film, in television, in literature and in music – whose work doesn’t necessarily adhere to a standard system of ratings. In fact, their work is better enjoyed, appreciated and evaluated as a puzzle for a curious audience to solve along the way, rather than a constructed score to deduct from. Not every great artist’s work is that way, but to my mind, the ones who do are the most compelling. The films and television series that comprise of the directorial work of Stephen Soderbergh consistently fit this description. This past week Cinemax premiered an ambitious new Soderbergh-directed series called The Knick, and if its first episode is any indication, then the series fits his fascinating mold.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that there’s nothing like The Knick on television right now. In actuality, it’s probably more accurate to say that, for many reasons, there’s never been anything like it on television before. For starters, there’s its absorbing premise and setting. The Knick is set in a high-pressure New York City hospital, in the year 1900. It tells the story of the courageous men and women who fought to save lives in a dark, dangerous, grimy and unsterile world, often employing innovative means that challenged the commonly accepted notions of the era to do so. It combines two conventional TV genres – period piece and medical drama – but it’s put together in a way that feels original and invigorating.
In the most recent era of television, the device of setting a series in a specific period has ranged somewhere between well worn and overused. For a while, there seemed to be a (false) truism that “high production value period piece” was synonymous with “high quality, prestige television”, but really, period pieces have run the gamut from the critically acclaimed (Mad Men, Deadwood) to the lavish (Boardwalk Empire) to the underwhelming (Halt and Catch Fire, Hell on Wheels). The through line of the shows on the weaker end of the spectrum is that they all heavily rely on their (often glamorous) aesthetic.
The tradition of the television medical drama, however, nearly goes back to the genesis of the medium itself; CBS aired City Hospital, the first widely recognized medical drama, all the way back in 1951. While there have been plenty of serious critical and commercial television hits in the past five decades and change – House and early ER come to mind – in recent years the genre has been dominated by soapy serials, such as ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice. In its first episode alone, The Knick manages to supersede the standard period piece by giving us a world that is as intriguing on the inside as it is attractive on the outside, and it transcends the modern medical drama by providing dramatic events that are fueled by stunning realism, rather than by shocking plot twists.
But more than anything, from its very first frame, The Knick is a mystery. The first scene shows a man sitting in a dimly lit room, one leg lazily crossed over the other, stark white shoes on his feet. His shoes stand out, and the questions are obvious. Who is this man in these arrogant, stark white shoes? Why is he in this dimly lit room? Why does this simple image feel so ominous? Over time these questions are answered, but only partially, and the reveals are gradual. The Knick, like it’s troubled protagonist Dr. John Thackery, moves at its own pace. After the man – Thackery, as it turns out – is awakened, he takes a horse and carriage to “The Knick,” the nickname for the struggling Knickerbocker Hospital, where Thackery is deputy surgeon; however, to the driver’s surprise he asks to take the long way. Is it symbolic? Is Thackery the kind of guy who likes to do it his way, rather than the simple way? Perhaps so, but in this case, Thackery asks to take the long way so he can slip off a white shoe and shoot cocaine between his toes, because that, apparently, is how Dr. Thackery prepares for a grueling day of life-or-death surgery.
The task at hand this particular day for Thackery, the head surgeon J.M. Christianson and their colleagues is to save a woman and a baby suffering from placenta previa. They attempt a C-section, a procedure that is now common, but in 1900, was still relatively new to the medical world, and far riskier than it is today. The seven or eight minutes that it takes for the procedure to take place feel like an eternity because Soderbergh’s lens is unsparing; the most graphic parts of the surgery, which a network show would cut away from to remove the viewer from being too close to the gruesome action, are the parts that Soderbergh wants you to see. He wants you to know exactly how traumatizing this world really is. It’s far more horrifying and affecting than any blood, guts and gore you might get in a zombie or torture porn flick, because not only did this actually happen, this was the stuff people had to do to discover the best ways to save lives and make crucial medical advancements.
But Soderbergh’s methods here– as they are throughout all of “Method and Madness” – are multifaceted. Every shot is calculated, every perspective is considered with a perspective in mind. He isn’t just shooting the scene as it transpires; he’s systematically focusing his camera on different faces and objects, from different angles to allow the viewer to have a true vantage point of the full situation. On television, this type of directing, with few exceptions (Louie in particular comes to mind) simply doesn’t exist. In addition, the score is the familiar, mechanized and frenetic beat of a techno-thriller, courtesy of Drive and Contagion composer Cliff Martinez. It would sound right at home in almost any Soderbergh film, but in the year 1900, it stands out and sounds positively alien. These are the quirks and benefits that come with having an idiosyncratic, control freak of an auteur as the sole director and visionary of a television series, and it’s also a large part of what separates The Knick from the rest.
But, you might ask, how does one deal with such a high-stress occupation – one in which the fate of people’s lives depend on your competence, bravery and ingenuity? Well, The Knick’s premiere (“Method and Madness”) shows us two very different avenues of coping. Whereas John Thackery, who is played by the always-excellent Clive Owen, survives on cycles of opium and cocaine and his own tremendous ego to get him through the day, J.M. Christianson just gives up. Following the failed C-section in which neither the mother nor the newborn survived, he puts a gun to his head and surrenders. At his funeral, Thackery delivers an impassioned eulogy in both memory of his fallen friend and in praise of his former colleague’s – and his own – life’s work. “I won’t stop pushing forward into a hopeful future. And with every blow I land, every extra year I give to a patient, I will remember my fallen friend Jules Michael Christianson, and know that at the very least, something, however temporary, has been won,” he states with conviction. Afterwards, Cornelia Robertson, the powerful daughter of a wealthy and important benefactor to The Knick, notes that it was a lovely eulogy, “if not a bit self-aggrandizing”. Sister Harriet, a sharp-tongued nun, replies that it was just another chance for him to trumpet his personal war against God”.
Yes, it does seem pretty clear that John Thackery is an anti-hero, a Difficult Man who goes against the grain and plays by his own rules. After fifteen years or so of anti-hero driven shows, it’s easy to spot shades of many of our recent television era’s most iconic characters in Thackery. Whether it’s the respected professional (like, say, Don Draper) who harshly dresses down his underlings, such as Thackery does when Nurse Elkins makes a mistake midway through the premiere, or the complex man (like, say, Walter White) who steps on the wrong side of what’s ethical, such as when Thackery conducts surgery under the influence, a lot of this feels familiar. The anti-hero character who Thackery is perhaps most reminiscent of is The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty, another highly skilled self-destructive protagonist with a definite streak of self-righteousness. But for everything that some of the best Golden Age shows were able to accomplish with the anti-hero trope, what made these shows truly thrive was everything else that they built around it. And though The Knick’s first hour is largely dominated by the anti-hero theatrics and travails and triumphs of John Thackery, there are enough interesting things going on in the margins to suggest that The Knick is aiming to go much deeper.
Once John Thackery is promoted to head surgeon, he finds even though he’s given more power, he’s still outweighed by bureaucracy and wealthy benefactors who keep The Knick alive so its staff can keep fighting to keep patients alive. He’s outraged that, when he tries to hire a proven and trusted hand in the from of Dr. Everett Gallinger, Cornelia Robertson insists that he hire Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), a highly educated but unknown newcomer who happens to be black. It’s not so much that Thackery seems racist – some of his coworkers seem more outwardly prejudiced than him – it’s just that he’s pragmatic. He doesn’t want to hire someone whom his staff might be uncomfortable working with and whom his patients could potentially be repelled by – this is a hospital running on fumes, in debt by $30,000, after all. (Don’t forget: Adjusted for inflation, $30,000 in 1900 likely amounts to somewhere upwards of $800,000 today.)
However, that doesn’t make it any less harsh when he bluntly tells Edwards, “You can only run away and join the circus if the circus wants you. I don’t want you in my circus”. But he’s forced to relent when the Robertsons threaten to cut their funding for electricity. It’s a sign that the show will go beyond the visceral shocks and thrills of a hyper-realistic medical drama, as well as the common existential angst that goes hand in hand with “prestige” television. It will explore the politics – racial and otherwise – of New York City in 1900. The presence of Nurse Harriet suggests that the show will also touch on the role of faith in this strange world. At another point, a health inspector is paid off by a building owner whose property’s unsanitary conditions give a poor woman tuberculosis – a death sentence in that day and age – suggesting that we’ll learn more of the early 1900s brand of New York City corruption. In its early going, many intriguing shows potentially exist inside of The Knick.
The climax of the episode, though, comes in the form of another daring surgery performance. After getting rescued by Nurse Elkins in the throes of drug withdrawal, Dr. Thackery storms into The Knick with a full head of steam and the drug-induced confidence to try something innovative. He employs his beloved cocaine to numb the nerves and manage the pain, and an innovative clamp that he personally created to save a man who is suffering from septicemia, to the awe of onlookers – the Knick regularly performs in front of a captive and grim-faced private audience in an operating room that doubles as a theater – and coworkers alike. (Count Dr. Algernon Edwards among those impressed by the mad doctor’s extravagant show, too.). During the surgery, Thackery quotes Shakespeare, “Though this is madness, yet there is method in it.” There has to be for the surgery to be successful, and though it would be nice to think that the people operating high-risk surgeries aren’t mad, someone has to do it. The men and women of The Knick represent those who had the courage, the intellect and perhaps, yes, the madness necessary to alter the course of medical history and lead us to the modern advancements that we have and take for granted today.
In the year 1900, humans were regularly cut down in their prime by mysterious illnesses and simple wounds that barely slow us down in the modern era. People were only expected to live to the age of 47, and a routine procedure or a minor collision with a streetcar alike could quickly escalate into a life-threatening condition. The whole world, essentially, was a dimly lit room. It’s fitting, then, that the last scene consists of electricians installing new bulbs in the hospital halls. It’s a reflection of the show itself. With The Knick, Stephen Soderbergh painstakingly recreates this fascinating but very dark world and puts in the center, in the form of the Knick’s staff, the very thing that it needs most: Light.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. Additionally, he’s written about sports, pop culture and politics for Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Voices,The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.