Soderbergh’s ‘The Knick’ Brings a Contemporary Eye to Old-Timey Medicine

When we compare films and television these days — and we shouldn’t, because (despite some obvious shared storytelling tools) they’re different beasts entirely, but we do — we tends to praise the larger canvas of a television series, the way that its creators can take their time to build a world and spin a yarn, playing the long game. But that’s an idealized take on the medium; thanks to recap culture and Twitter consensus, the viewing public can give up on a show in a mere episode (sometimes less than one) if it doesn’t deliver immediately. This is all a roundabout way of saying that The Knick, Steven Soderbergh’s new drama for Cinemax (premiering tonight) is a show that demands patience, and rewards it. Soderbergh puts his narrative on a slow simmer, and it takes several episodes to come to a full, rolling boil — and when it does, it’s brilliant television. But tonight’s pilot is not one of those inaugural outings, like Breaking Bad’s or Homeland’s, that grabs and shakes you; The Knick pulls you close, whispers quietly, and slides a dagger between your ribs.

The time is 1900. The place is the Knickerbocker, a downtown New York hospital on the cutting edge (ha ha) of modern medicine, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Dr. Christenson (Matt Frewer, the artist formerly known as Max Headroom). But the hospital is in transition; after a surgical procedure goes horribly awry early on, the good doctor carefully lays a sheet over his office couch, puts a gun to his head, and blows his brains out. His position as chief surgeon is taken over by his deputy, Dr. John Thackery, played by Clive Owen in a perpetual state of unshaven, disheveled sweatiness.

Dr. Thackery’s bona fides as our requisite Prestige Drama Antihero™ are established in his very first appearance, stumbling out of a Chinatown opium den/whorehouse at 7:30 in the morning, and into a carriage, where he shoots up between his toes on his way to work. He spends most of his nights there (“Where else would I go?” he asks), and most of his waking hours at the Knick, roaring at underlings and desperately trying to figure out why he keeps losing patients.

Clive Owen in "The Knick"

Oh, and he’s a racist — not unusual considering the time and place, certainly, but brought to the fore by the efforts of wealthy board member Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) to place, in Dr. Thackery’s now-vacant deputy chief position, Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland). Edwards is a smart and capable doctor, with degrees from all the right universities; he’s also black, and Thackery’s not having it. “You can only run away and join the circus if the circus wants you,” he tells Dr. Edwards. “This is my circus, and I don’t want you.”

He changes his tune when the Robertsons pull their funding for the hospital’s electrification project, but even then, he won’t let Dr. Edwards into the operating room and only gives him the most menial of jobs on the ward. Yet the Edwards subplot becomes The Knick’s most fascinating, as the show’s writers (chief among them creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler) work out how a smart man such as Edwards might take advantage of being underestimated and ignored.

A scene early in the second episode, which intercuts an encounter between Edwards and a fellow resident of his rooming hall with Cornelia being simultaneously boosted and demeaned by her powerful father, touches on themes of race and gender repression, which can be risky; both are important topics, yet there are certain traps inherent in doing a program that is About Something. And make no mistake, The Knick loads itself up with topics that were far from mere turn-of-the-century concerns: race, class, gender, immigration, abortion, and the dysfunctional medical system are all in timely play.

Still image from "The Knick"

But Soderbergh doesn’t overplay his hand; the show concerns those issues, but it isn’t about them. The real subject is the world of the hospital, and the nuts and bolts of period medicine, with all the moving parts examined: ambulance drivers literally brawling in the streets for patients, cops demanding “finder’s fees” for bringing in TB patients, administrators scrounging (and lying) for practice corpses, crooked electrical contractors cutting deadly corners, health inspectors tracking down the source of the typhoid epidemic.

That last thread culminates in the hunt for the original “Typhoid Mary,” a real person slightly fictionalized and sifted into this manufactured world, in the style of Doctorow’s Ragtime. And in some ways, The Knick plays like the sadly abandoned Robert Altman adaptation of that book, in which a masterful filmmaker uses his quietly contemporary style to give The Past a markedly modern pulse. Soderbergh’s frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez contributes his customary, moodily enthralling score, and feels no obligation to make it “period”; it feels of the current moment, as does Soderbergh’s filmmaking, full of unfussy handheld camerawork, unobtrusive light, moody saturation, and unexpected compositions. And its cable setting allows him free reign to explore this world in all its gory particulars (it is, to put it mildly, a show for the strong of stomach), but he doesn’t abuse that privilege; one of the most quietly devastating scenes skips a key procedure entirely, but tells the story in a series of grisly close-ups of the operating room’s aftermath.

Soderbergh doesn’t reach for effects here; his direction is confident and unhurried, but we always get a sense that he’s heading somewhere. The first seven episodes of The Knick (of ten total) were provided to critics, and each show is better than the last; the seventh, a brilliantly executed bottle episode of harrowing, barely contained violence, is 42 minutes of the filmmaker at full tilt. There are occasional missteps — a few scenes too on-the-nose, a couple of turns we see coming over the horizon, a cliché or two sifted into the mix — but they’re minor at best. That Soderbergh had to give up on the movies and go to pay cable to tell adult stories for adult audiences is a sad commentary on where we’re headed, but make no mistake: cinema’s loss is Cinemax’s gain.

The Knick premieres tonight on Cinemax.