New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital offers the most advanced medical care 1900 has to offer.
As soon as the doctor emerges from the opium den, catches a horse-drawn cab and finds the last usable vein in his toe for his cocaine injection, surgery can begin.
“The Knick,” a 10-part TV drama from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, inverts the formula that has served most feel-good medical shows so well. Patients at the Knick, especially those who go under the knife, die as a rule and survive as surprise.
Clive Owen stars as fictional surgical pioneer John Thackery, the closest thing “The Knick” has to a protagonist. Thackery and his fellow doctors have no antibiotics, reliable electricity or suture material stronger than silk. They’re the era’s rock stars, no matter how many patients die on the table.
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Thackery deals with the stress with egotistical rule-breaking, a sad bachelor lifestyle and coke-fueled “research” binges. He parties like Sherlock Holmes, then carves up cadavers like Victor Frankenstein.
“Are you tired?” he asks one of his apprentices during a dayslong experiment. “Because I have something for that.”
Cinemax has put out a few original shows — most notably “Banshee,” an over-the-top action story — but “The Knick” and its classy pedigree could mean another pay channel joining the chase for Emmys and subscribers. Soderbergh loudly “retired” from moviemaking last year to work on TV projects, and he directed all 10 “Knick” episodes, like Cary Fukunaga did with HBO’s eight-part “True Detective.”
Like “True Detective,” “The Knick” benefits from a consistent vision and stellar cinematography. Its turn-of-the-century sets and costuming will transport viewers into the past more vividly than any stuffy sitting room in “Downton Abbey.” But it requires dedication to stick around with “The Knick” until the action gets going a few episodes in.
“The Knick” is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. From the looks of it, neither was New York City in 1900. There’s a little nudity — this is Cinemax, after all — but it’s the mortal injuries and doomed pregnancies that will get to you.
They certainly get to newbie nurse Lucy Elkins, who makes friends with Thackery after finding him at home sweating and shaking in his bed after missing a shot of cocaine.
“I tried to go the night without it,” he explains after Lucy (Eve Hewson) helps him with the injection. “That won’t happen again.”
Each episode includes a trip or two to the operating theater, where we get to see an inflamed appendix, a fistfight and lots of hand-cranked blood suctioning. Despite its grisly subject matter, “The Knick” doesn’t invite you to gape at gore. Like NBC’s “Hannibal,” it applies enough self-conscious artistry to its bloody scenes to keep horrified emotional responses at bay.
The show’s most disturbing image is a bloodless revelation of how untreated syphilis once ravaged pretty faces — and how surgeons tried to repair them.
Beyond its medical stories, “The Knick” unpacks a lot of back-then baggage right away: Abortion, women’s rights and corruption are immediately at the forefront, swirling through the stories of patients, doctors, nurses and the nuns who run the hospital’s orphanage. But race pushes all other issues aside when Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) is hired as the hospital’s first black doctor.
To its credit, “The Knick” doesn’t make Thackery the lone good guy who welcomes Edwards to the hospital. Thackery isn’t even the least racist guy on the four-man surgery staff. It would be comical to watch Edwards’ new co-workers try to take advantage of his expertise without giving him credit, if they weren’t willing to let patients die to preserve the hospital’s forced segregation.
Even in 1900, hospitals were competing for America’s health-care dollars — and not just with one another. Gunshot wounds were soaked with whiskey and probed in barbershops. Downtown, the once-tony Knickerbocker is trying to win back its affluent clientele with whatever new gadgets it can offer, such as a shockingly expensive X-ray machine, while keeping expenses down.
Meanwhile, everybody’s on the take — the cops, the money men and even the nuns have deals on the side. Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), an ambulance driver who gets 25 cents for each rich New Yorker he drops off at the Knick, tries to stamp out the hospital’s underground abortion service. Eventually, he finds that his moral objections are soothed by his share of the $8 fee paid by every woman he refers.
“The Knick” is essentially a workplace drama, but a gathering unease surrounding Edwards’ growing defiance hints at violent consequences for everyone around him.
When “The Knick” ends its 10-hour examination of modern mortality, it probably won’t be with a handshake or a hug.