A television show about a hospital is not a new concept. In fact, medical dramas have been pretty popular over the last several decades. From St. Elsewhere to E.R. to House, audiences have always had an interest in shows about medicine, perhaps for two reasons: medicine is a subject that fascinates the general public, and hospitals are dramatic by nature. People are born, people die, and doctors and nurses are heroes. But all those shows had one thing in common – they were all set in the time in which they were produced, thereby resulting in formulaic story lines. The genre needed some new life, which brings me to what I consider to be one of the best new shows of the year: The Knick.
Produced, shot, edited, and directed by Steven Soderbergh (masterfully, I might add), The Knick takes place in 1900 New York City, at Knickerbocker Hospital. Medicine in 1900 was crude and competitive, but this was also an age of great discoveries and innovations. This is one major example of how The Knick has set itself apart from other medical dramas. On a show like E.R., for example, the doctors are well-versed in procedures and techniques, and so the main source of drama is whether or not they can save the patient. On The Knick, however, the audience gets a front-row seat to the birth of modern medicine, meaning there are an awful lot of gruesome experiments that end in failure. (And this show is pretty graphic, so be warned.)
Clive Owen stars as Dr. John Thackery, chief surgeon at The Knick and head of the Wacky Ideas Department. Thackery, or “Thack,” as he is often called, is based on one of the founding professors of Johns Hopkins University, William Stewart Halsted. Halsted was a visionary who revolutionized medicine through procedures such as the radical mastectomy; likewise, our Dr. Thackery is focused on perfecting a life-saving surgery for expectant mothers suffering from placenta praevia, a condition that resulted in the deaths of many women and babies. And he fails. A lot. Still, he is driven by a desire to succeed, though his motive seems to be glory rather than the well-being of the women.
Thack’s problem isn’t just the frustration of failure. He has also lost his mentor, he’s a cocaine addict (as was the real-life Dr. Halsted), he’s jealous of his peers, and he has been forced to work with a new surgeon, who just happens to be black. Escandalo! That’s right – this isn’t just a show about medicine; it’s also a show about racial tensions in the not-so-progressive North. The doctor in question, Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), is a brilliant and gifted surgeon, maybe even the best surgeon at the Knick. But racism in 1900 New York was widespread, and Edwards is quickly banished to the basement, where he performs his own experiments and treats black patients. Holland is outstanding in the role as a man who has to remain composed at all times, but whose blood is at a steady boil. He occasionally boils over, and with good reason.
There are also three great women on this show. Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), daughter of the head of the Knick’s board and the hospital’s social worker; Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), a no-bullshit nun who assists with some surgeries; and Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson – daughter of Paul “Bono” Hewson), a shy girl from West Virginia who puts up with a remarkable amount of shit in the name of love. The rest of the characters are the usual suspects: the slimy hospital administrator, Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb); the aspiring young doctor, Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano); the doctor who wants to be a big-shot, Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson); and the burly Irish ambulance driver who fist-fights to claim patients, Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan).
A LOT happens on this show. In fact, if I had one criticism of the first season, it’s that they throw just about every possible scenario into the story. Race riots. Electrocutions. Dead patients (lots of them). Drug addiction. Opium dens. Unplanned pregnancies. Abortions. Syphilis. Drunk Irish people. Typhoid fever. Typhoid Mary, even! It all seemed like a bit much for a 10-episode first season, but then I remembered that all of this stuff actually happened in 1900, so I got over it.
One othercrucial aspect of The Knick that makes it so good: the score. Here’s the thing – it isn’t period music. You know how Boardwalk Empire only uses ragtime? The Knick takes the opposite approach, and the entire score is futuristic electronic music, composed by Cliff Martinez. It shouldn’t work; and yet, it works beautifully. It is eerie and moody and makes me think of science. I know that doesn’t make sense, but trust me. This 21st century score feels strangely right at home in 1900. Chalk that up as another good decision by Soderbergh. Everything about this show works, because he meticulously planned it.
Oh, and there’s also this, which was a real procedure:
The first season ended aweek ago, and season two has already been announced for 2015. Do yourself a favor and watch it on Cinemax on Demand. (Yeah, Cinemax!) Let me know what you think, because none of my friends watched The Knick and I’m going crazy looking for someone to talk to about it.