“The Knick” is beautiful. It is ugly. It is a profound bit of work. People who ignore it have weak stomachs one way or another. For those unawares, the Soderbergh-produced series explores the late 19th century’s medical practices and innovations.
It’s chief setting is the Knick, a fictionalized version of Harlem’s Knickerbocker Hospital. There, senior surgeon Dr. John W. “Thack” Thackery (Clive Owen) assumes the lead after his predecessor commits suicide. The reason? A failed experimental procedure that ends the patient’s life.
So begins “The Knick.” We explore all social spheres that affect the institution. Unlike other medical dramas, this show also has a bit of “Six Feet Under.” Watching how patients end up at the hospital can be darkly humorous. Irreverent, it amps the pathos as well.
And yes, the setting and premise invite some of TV’s most grisly visuals yet. That’s little surprise as this is a Cinemax series but “The Knick” is not just an exhibition of suffering. Each uncompromising shot provokes empathy for the patients, great contrast as the sets and details are often revolting. Other medical dramas are popcorn fare by comparison.
The actors match the visual…realism. Clive Owen is convincing at his worst. We see many sides of Thack throughout each season and he, by all indications, is among the roundest characters on television. “The Knick,” if anything, has a very mature take on substance abuse. This inner conflict dominates Thack’s life. It ruins his relationships, renders him coldly indifferent to his progressive ideals, and endangers his patients. The efficacy nonsense from failures like “Rush” is thankfully absent. Instead, Thack runs away from his failures, his withdrawals, and his interpersonal mistakes…and is worse for it.
This show is about the Knick, though, and all its characters. We see how the world handles Dr. Algernon C. Edwards (Andre Holland), one of the only Black surgeons on the island. Then there’s righteous, and independent, capital-class fundraiser Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance). Unscrupulous ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and abortionist nun Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) make a great duo. And let us not forget the embezzling manager Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb). The cast is both compelling and great at their craft.
Of course, there are discrepancies between “The Knick” and its actual subject matter. Season 2’s story is perhaps the best example. It’s a mighty twist, and on the extreme of believability. The narrative also cops out by creating a mastermind antagonist that unfortunately cheapens the impact of how collective flaws, and attributes, affect the institution. It eliminates the tragedy of the accident, of the chaos that the Knick floats upon.
Contempt, ambition, and hope: these are what drives “The Knick” and its characters. All of Season 2’s systemic effects and tragedy, though, would be better explored if several characters were just more developed. Season 2’s themes still feel like a ton of bricks. A disappointing ton of bricks, but it packs a wallop.
That the story would impinge on the setting’s historicity is also part of the aesthetics. Cliff Martinez’s electronic soundtrack pulses through almost every important scene. Camera work is unapologetically modern. Look elsewhere if about the insipid camera angles that plague sitcoms and documentaries.
“The Knick” is not only one of the most eager historical dramas on television. It is also its most daring. While unique, though,”The Knick” is not the only show to combine history with modern influences. Unlike nonsense such as “The Bastard Executioner,” however, or “Harlots,” it is one of the only shows to take its subject matter seriously. Bravo!