“The Knick” Gets Under Your Skin

Posted on August 08, 2014


Stylish, dark, gory and twisted, Cinemax’s The Knick is exactly the show you’ve been waiting for, if you’re the type of person who thinks Downton Abbey needs more viscera or Walter White would’ve looked so much cooler in turn-of-the-century costuming.

Okay, that’s a little flippant of us. We’ll start again. Developed and directed by Steven Soderbergh, and starring Clive Owen as cocaine-addicted surgeon (with a techno beat – no, really) Dr. John Thackery, the show takes a stylish (there’s that word again) look at the goings on at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900. It has all the trappings of a modern first class television drama: a period setting, fantastic sets and costumes, a movie star white guy lead who’s a tortured addict and something of an asshole – but nevertheless extremely good-looking, charismatic and talented at his job at a level that far exceeds any other character. Add in a lot of dark imagery and some peripheral characters to embody the disenfranchised in a patriarchal society; in this case, a too-smart-for-her-own-good nurse and an African-American surgeon who comes off astoundingly naive as to what to expect from the world he lives in. Stir well, and bake at 350.

Okay, we admit it. We may have a little bit of a problem with the setup of the show, since one could take the uncharitable view that a lot of items are getting checked off of a list here. Not to get all social justice warrior or anything, but why not have a series set in a turn of the century hospital where the lead IS the too-smart-for-her-own-good nurse or the naive African-American surgeon? Clive Owen’s very good in the lead role, but it’s just another in a long line of tortured upper-middle class white male protagonists who abuse everyone around them but get away with it because they’re so handsome, smart and/or powerful. In other words, there’s a whole hell of a lot of privileged, patriarchal wish-fulfillment in a lot of what constitutes “quality” cable television and it’s starting to get really stale. Lots and lots of white guys yelling at women and black people while simultaneously dazzling everyone with their talent. A world of Don Drapers, from Lee Pace’s character in Halt and Catch Fire to Jeff Daniels’ in The Newsroom, it’s an archetype long past its expiration date.

But that is a complaint for another day and possibly not a fair complaint in regards to this show. We’ve only seen one episode, after all – and a good deal of that was setting up both the nurse and the black doctor as major characters. For all we know, Clive Owen dies in the next episode, Ned Stark-style, and the entire focus of the show could shift. We doubt that very much, however. And we’re not even arguing in favor of it. On the contrary, Owen is giving the performance of his life and the premiere episode worked far too effectively to set him up in the center of the story. They’ve also done an incredible job on the setting itself. “The Knick” is a place that was, if the show is to be believed, so brutal, harsh and unsanitary that you might be forgiven if watching it triggers an OCD hand-washing response, as well as a silent prayer of thanks you were born when you were. Like the best of the period dramas (Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Masters of Sex, Call the Midwife, and to a far, far lesser extent, Downton Abbey) it’s working very hard to provoke that sense of gratitude that you live in the time period you do, while at the same time demonstrating a polar opposite affection for the fashions and trappings of the distant past, as well as a slight condescension towards its quaintness.

But again, we sound more critical than we mean to. If we’re giving you the impression this show isn’t worth your time, we’re doing it wrong. There’s a darkness and roughness here that can’t help but burrow its way under your skin (a choice of words that’ll make more sense once you see the first episode). It’s engrossing like very few shows on television can be. And in the wasteland of late summer programming, it’s absolutely the very best thing on television at the moment. The promise is high, the cast is ready, and it looks like nothing else currently airing. Get sucked in. Just don’t watch while you’re eating.





[Photo Credit: Cinemax]

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  • marlie

    I don’t know how I didn’t see an ad for this show before last night! Anyway, here’s a HUGE nerd alert: My undergraduate major was History of Science and Medicine. No joke. So, needless to say, I will be tuning in tonight to see everything that I studied put onto the small screen, and I can’t wait. (Seriously… I even love the image of the surgical theater.)

  • Paula Pertile

    OK. I’ll probably watch.
    (But right now I can’t get past wanting to draw all those beautiful folds in those white outfits.)

  • M_E_S

    I’ve heard nothing but good buzz about this show, so I’ll definitely give it a try. It can’t be THAT much gorier than Hannibal, right?

  • peppepp

    Sort of sounds like the show London Hospital, except without the British accents. Hopefully it will be as good.

    • chunkytoast

      Yes! – the first thing I thought of when I discovered this show was that it sounded like a redux of The London and I am wondering how closely Soderbergh (or Owen, who is an Exec Producer) watched that. I loved that show and it was too short of a series. This is a bit more high production gruesome/dark but has a lot of the same story lines and ingredients as The London (advances in healthcare, the benefactors, women with aspirations beyond nursing, the arrogant doctors, abject poverty…)

  • MilaXX

    I want to see this and probably will watch. However, you touched on a point that often grates my nerves; the all too frequent casting of the privileged white male as the lead. I just wish Hollywood would change things up more.

    • One day the BKs will rise up and force Hollywood to cast Idris Elba as the male lead in everything ever.

      • NinjaCate

        Opposite Lupita!

        • KateShouldBeWorking

          Don’t get my hopes up.

    • fursa_saida

      I saw a post on tumblr earlier that put a photo of Zoe Saldana with her co-star from Avatar alongside a photo of her with Chris Pratt, and my god they are nearly indistinguishable. Just stubbly squinting white guys, over and over.

      The tortured maverick white guy phenomenon has been going on for most of my TV life at this point. I always think of House as kind of the defining example, but I could probably list dozens if I sat down to do it.

    • Aurumgirl

      Yes, it’s successful, so they do it to death. Also, I’m going to watch this show knowing full well that the history of medicine they’re trying to tell us about in shows like this is pretty much as “doctored up” as it comes. It sure leaves out a lot of important truths, and on purpose, too. All so they can do the White Superman story line again.

    • WaterGhost

      This post is upped a thousand times in my imagination.

  • Sobaika

    “… another in a long line of tortured upper-middle class white male protagonists who abuse everyone around them but get away with it because they’re so handsome, smart and/or powerful.”

    Bless this post. This has been the strongest and most consistent theme in modern television (unfortunately).

    Anyway, this show looks interesting. I love Clive Owen and am willing to forgive a naive person of color. Chances are it’s being written by an overwhelming white team, can get pretty clunky.

  • Suzanne Moore

    I’ve been hearing good things about this show and was sad that we don’t pay Directv for Cinemax, but Lo and Behold! We have a free Cinemax weekend today through Sunday and two episodes are being show tonight. Yippee!

    • Sarah

      Yeah me too from Dish. I was wondering why the free preview – didn’t know about the show. I am not wanting to get sucked in, though, since I’m sure by Monday I’ll not have it anymore.

  • Sarah

    “White guy lead who’s a tortured addict and something of an asshole – but nevertheless extremely good-looking, charismatic and talented at his job at a level that far exceeds any other character”
    House, anyone? Is this an old-timey House? (That’s not a bad thing, just sounds very similar)

    • fursa_saida

      House, Lie to Me, The Blacklist, Almost Human, Suits, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Masters of Sex…I could go on and on.

      • Sarah

        Yer so right.

      • FibonacciSequins


        • fursa_saida

          Sherlock, Doctor Who…

          • muzan-e

            Lost, Banshee..

            Well, wait, no, Banshee’s White Guy Lead is not exactly an asshole and not remotely an addict (except perhaps to fucking up) and he’s frankly not talented at his job at all, except for in the right ways (there’s not a cop in his station who isn’t better at being a cop)..

            Still, though, white male lead. Always.

            And possibly I’m only just seizing an opportunity to whine about House, which is up there next to Blacklist and 24 on the list of Shows I Just Simply Cannot Stop Hating.

          • Jose R. Medina

            Doctor Who does not count it’s almost 50 years old not part of the modern Hollywood archetype !

          • Still counts with every privileged white male regeneration.

          • fursa_saida

            I got to the point where I just couldn’t stand 11 at all. I quit the show a while ago. I probably won’t feel like it’s safe to come back until Moffat’s gone, sigh.

          • oldscrumby

            That’s a rather shallow way to look at it. You’d have to argue both that the show has remained unchanged for fifty years and that the original Dr. had no relation to current archetypes. The first is patently not true and a case could probably be made against the latter. In fact, Dr. Who’s unique combination of decades-long run and frequent reboots actually makes it a really good thing to look at if you’re trying to make a case for trends in archetypes. If I were writing a paper on it I’d want to identify a trendsetter or two, like House and Jack Bauer, and then I bring up some direct copycats, but after that I’d want to show that the trend dispersed itself even farther by pointing out where established characters would have been changed to incorporate it. So I’d definitely look at Tennant and Smith’s runs as the Doctor and see if they reflected that archetype in their runs and if that was a marked change from previous Doctors.

          • Jose R. Medina

            Thank you so much for starting your (dissertation rant ) with an insult ! Makes any….. Ugh life is short & I’m shallow & I’m pretty sure you are not worth the headache .

          • oldscrumby

            Shallow way to look at it /= you are shallow. But I understand why you might be confused. If you couldn’t preemptively claim that I insulted you as an excuse to dismiss me you might have to actually respond to my argument. This way you get to ride off on your high horse and no one will question if you actually read or understood the content of my post.

          • fursa_saida

            The series was rebooted in 2005, well within the time frame, and it’s not just a matter of “hey the main character is a white guy,” it’s “hey the main character is a white guy who gets away with pulling all kinds of crap because he’s just sooooo amaaaaaziiiiiing, and most characters and events are there to illustrate his tragic, tragic psyche” which really, really fits 10 and 11.

          • Dora Kishinevsky

            YES. I love Doctor Who and I love both 10 and 11 as characters but they just very obviously fit the theme we’re talking about. The thing is you could forgive it in any single show but when it’s done in ALL THE SHOWS it gets old.

            (My favorite 10 moments are when he breaks out of that mold, as in “Midnight,” when his love of humanity shines through and he’s the exact opposite of the tragic Byronic misanthrope whatever.)

          • Marjean Fieldhouse

            it fits, when I watched “Adventures in Time and Space” which was a fictionalized version of the creation of Doctor Who, it ended with all versions of the Doctor standing together – alll white men. Then Moffett the current show runner made snide remarks about the possibility of a woman Doctor. They’ll get me back when the Doctor represents modern Britain and the world, not the fantasies of white men only

    • boweryboy

      House was my first thought as well.

    • oldscrumby

      While there are probably earlier examples of the archetype, House really set the trend for it in modern television leading to a torrent of bad imitators before becoming a bad imitation itself in an incredibly meta parallel to the show’s constant theme of self-destruction… or at least that’s the excuse I give myself for watching that show for so damn long.

      • Sarah

        Totes. It got…not as good, and I watched it to the bitter end.

  • If this is anything like The Young Doctor’s Notebook, I’m in.

  • decormaven

    Any chance it’s streaming for pay on ITunes or Amazon? Mr. DM and I are having Game of Thrones withdrawal; no way to see S4 until it comes out on DVD, unless HBO opens the golden gates to either streaming entity.

    • Sobaika

      WHY don’t they do that??? Some deal with cable companies or something? They’re losing money.

      • marlie

        The should also allow people to just subscribe a la carte/to a single show/series. I’d totally pay extra just to watch GoT.

        • Sobaika

          That wouldn’t make sense from a business model point of view – it’s costly to put shows on streaming and more effective to divvy the cost across all customers versus just those who watch one particular show.

          But seriously – Netflix has more legitimate customers than HBOGo at this point. Why don’t they offer it??

      • muzan-e

        It’s enormously irritating. I love Cinemax’s Banshee beyond all reason, and couldn’t even buy individual episodes before the season was concluded. How they haven’t realised what a goldmine awaits them in single-episode-purchaseland, I do not know.

    • Tanya Wade

      Yeah, this is my issue. We don’t want or need Cinemax, but Clive Owen is my dark twisted fantasy, so what’s a girl to do? Needs to be a la carte.

      • Beardslee

        I’d almost subscribe to premium cable to watch that man. As it is, I’ll kick my heels until Netflix gets it.

    • Loramir

      I spend so much time going “I would LOVE to pay for the privilege of watching your excellent show! I really like it and want to support it! Here, where do I put my credit card number?? TAKE MY MONEY! Look, I’ll pay for the whole season in advance, that’s how excited I am about your show! Oh, wait. There is no way for me to legally watch this show without actually subscribing to your channel and I don’t own a TV. Darn. Well, off to Project Free TV again…”

      Most recently it’s Starz. They even have an online viewing option for subscribers – but you can’t just subscribe for the online version alone. I don’t own a TV and cable is not a practical or viable option for me. Half the shows I watch are foreign or old and wouldn’t be on cable anyway. I pay for Amazon Prime and Netflix and Hulu and extra for season passes on Amazon. I love my shows, I want to support them, I want them to get renewed. But if you don’t give me the option, well, I’ll watch them however I can find them.

  • “Lots and lots of white guys yelling at women and black people while simultaneously dazzling everyone with their talent.”

    This is an excellent point that runs through my head most days. The strongest female role models who come close to this were the Murphy Browns and Julia Sugarbakers who were in comedy series. So rarely is there a leading woman of dizzying talent who can command as much respect portrayed in a drama series. I feel that AHS: Coven tried to do that with Jessica Lange (but failed in execution).

    • muzan-e

      Damages. A precious and rare and beautiful beast of a show.

      • …I am a sucker for both Rose Byrne and Glenn Close (even though I wanted to slap the former a lot in “Adam”.)

        • Aurumgirl

          Oh, but that show was a stinker of sexism, through and through. Especially the ending.
          I watched the whole thing just for the sake of knowing about it–but the show where Rose Byrne showed up for work dressed as a pilgrim made me realize I can only stand a good legal drama if the clothes are so much better.

          So The Good Wife is a far superior series, in my opinion.

    • ShaoLinKitten

      Orange is the New Black and Orphan Black are the female versions of this anti-hero trope that TV loves so much. Also, Vikings has a tough woman on it. They’re not exactly role models, though.

      • What I’m missing from OITNB is just that one central character that can get away with murder. Piper doesn’t really come close (because only lead characters qualify for what I am searching for). And I really need to see Orphan Black. Badly.

        • ShaoLinKitten

          How about Gemma on Sons of Anarchy? I swear that bitch could assassinate the president and get away with it.

          • That’s another one I want to see! Thanks for the rec!

          • ShaoLinKitten

            Oh, I don’t know if I *recommend* it, exactly. It’s a hot mess, plot-wise. You have to watch it like it’s a telenovela about bikers. On the plus side, OMG Charlie Hunnam is gorgeous, especially the first few seasons. That said, I have a conflicted, love/hate relationship with this show.

            You should try Vikings. Only two short seasons, and S1 is free on Amazon Prime. Some really kick ass women in that one.

    • Aurumgirl

      Well, right now, there is The Honourable Woman, starring Maggie Gyllenhall. Check out that series for some dizzying talent that can command some respect.

      But you’re right: that particular archetype of show has fallen right out of favour at the moment. Ladies were so much better when they could be easily dominated, apparently–plus they dressed nicer.

    • librarygrrl64

      Really hoping that Outlander will fill this gap in the historical category. Loving it so far!

  • boweryboy

    I’m intrigued. And thanks for the in depth analysis. It gave me a new perspective on these types of shows.

  • imspinningaround

    I have the DVR set for The Knick but I have a feeling I’m going to watch it through my fingers or from behind a pillow. I love Clive Owen and his dashing little mustache but I have a low tolerance for gore.

    Thank you for bringing up Halt and Catch Fire. Lee Pace’s is EASILY the weakest character (and frankly, he’s the weakest actor) on Halt and Catch Fire. Gordon and Donna are far more compelling.

    • demidaemon

      I have pretty much zero tolerance for gore. I think I was traumatized watching one of the many Friday the 13th sequels as a teenager and being forced to watch scenes from Fist of the North Star (which takes gore to a whole new stomach turning height).

    • Aurumgirl

      But seriously? Halt and Catch Fire is the 80’s costume drama version of Mad Men. It’s no accident the Lee Pace resembles John Hamm just enough to make the parallel clear. Then all the other characters fall right into place in terms of story structure. It’s as if AMC said, “It worked for the 60’s! Let’s remake it for the 80’s!” Except without a great costume designer.

      • oldscrumby

        It kind of begs the question if the costumes are really that bad or if it’s just a much less glamorous period in general with a focus on a very unglamorous industry. Thirty-year rule be damned, Halt and Catch Fire’s office, from the clothes to the furniture to the architecture screams, “old office” to my relatively youthful eyes. It’s not so much vintage as it is just dated.

        • Aurumgirl

          That’s what I mean–it’s a combination of both things, I think, in that business in that industry was already seeing the “dress down” trend we’re currently in. And what was happening in fashion is reflected there–but fashion really wasn’t all that interesting in the 80’s. “Cameron” looks like the typical 80’s punk rock “it” girl, so many models from that period looked exactly like she did because androgyny was the beauty norm at the time–but it meant a lot of boyish clothes. Not mannish, just boyish–stuff you’d find at the JCPenny or the Sears, in the boys’ department. And it really is “vintage” we’re looking at, but offices were no longer the stylish places they used to be. It really does show a huge change in the culture between those two decades–because just as advertising was glamourous in the 60’s, the computer/tech business was the business to be in in the 80’s. It’s just that what granted status in one era was quite different from what granted it or conveyed it in the other.

          • oldscrumby

            I agree but I was also trying to get at the idea that part of the lack stylishness may be part of the audiences personal feelings about the looks of the time creeping in. My mother wasn’t so enthralled by the aesthetics of Mad Men. She gave it credit for it’s accuracy and enjoy some “I had that” nostalgia with Sally’s clothes and some of the furnishings, but mostly she just wasn’t that excited by stuff that embodied her parent’s working adult lives and incredible dated-ness when she got to be that age herself. T&Lo made that point about one of the secretary’s outfits, how they couldn’t appreciate it as fashionable in it’s time, the late sixties, because they too strongly associated it with the unfashionable woman who wore it well into the seventies and eighties. Personally, I’m having the same kind of reaction to Halt and Catch Fire’s aesthetics and I feel like I’m not the only one. Yes, it’s a less glamorous time and a less stylish industry, but the nagging feeling that I’ve just walked into the old offices at the local tech college where the carpet hasn’t been changed in so long it still smells like cigarettes every time I put it on is a bit of a downer.

  • NinjaCate

    “In other words, there’s a whole hell of a lot of privileged, patriarchal wish-fulfillment in a lot of what constitutes “quality” cable television and it’s starting to get really stale.”

    Say it again uncles! That aside, if you guys like it, I’ll give it a try.

  • Terri Terri

    That photo, the hair and mustache, looked kind of Hitler at first glance.

  • Tricia

    I love your tv reviews. So. Much. I’m guilty of liking all the said “tortured upper-middle class white male protagonists” in various shows, but you’re absolutely right, it’s getting old. I’m interested in this one mostly cause of Soderbergh and the period piece element. But it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen Clive Owen in something really good.

  • Martha Anderson

    Clive Owens character is broadly based on William Halsted. He was all this, drug addict, anti-social driven brilliant. For a partial look at his life, read The Emperor of All Maladies. I am disappointed that I am not able to watch this and will have to wait for netflix or other services.

    For a look at a womans point of view, check out Bramwell. London charity hospital run by woman in the late 1800s

  • Katie F

    Based on this review I’m surprised you guys never got into NBC’s Hannibal…easily the most interesting show in ages. And it does gore as high art like nothing else.

    • ShaoLinKitten

      It’s the edgiest, scariest show on TV, and sadly no one’s watching it!

  • acevedob

    “why not have a series set in a turn of the century hospital where the lead IS the too-smart-for-her-own-good nurse or the naive African-American surgeon?”

    Lol.. thank you TLo 🙂

    • Aurumgirl

      Oh, there’s a reason why, all right. And it has to do more with the reality of what was actually happening for women and minorities in medicine at the time, particularly in Europe and in North America. A lot of money is spent making sure that story gets buried. So you will NEVER see it unless they make the female “too smart for her own good” nurse or naive African American doctor/surgeon an historically inaccurate character.

      • WaterGhost

        I am curious. Can you please point to any books, movies, or other material?

        • Aurumgirl

          Google “divided legacy” by Harris L. Coulter for a good way to start the search. Incidentally, a lot of what was happening in medicine was being documented in art (writers like Henry James in The Bostonians, for example; Louisa May Alcott in Little Women as well. Mark Twain also had plenty to write about what was happening in medicine at the time. Dr. Compton Burnett–that’s a fascinating story in itself. Plenty more out there, like personal writings of medical people like Florence Nightingale). In particular, we’re taught an awful lot of lies about women in medicine, and even moreso when it comes to women of colour in medicine. There were schools in North America which were prestigious and produced a great many doctors who were not just white men. Anyway, have fun. When I started to learn about it, it really made me wonder about what else they make a point of not being historically accurate about. And when you start looking around at that, well, you could spend a lifetime there.

          • WaterGhost

            Thank you for getting back to me on that. I am familiar with the works of James, Alcott, and Twain, but Coulter and Burnett are new to me. Googling then brings up some information about vaccines, which makes me a little nervous, because I am tired of the recent kerfuffle about vaccines and autism. However, thank you for pointing me to Florence Nightingale. I am sure she will be a fascinating read.

          • Aurumgirl

            The vaccines are not important in the story. What is important is what was going on in terms of practice standards, education standards, efficacy of care, legislation, etc. A lot has happened in the last 200 years or so. Coulter has written about vaccines, but that’s other research. Stick to the Divided Legacy stuff, that’s a lot more comprehensive.

          • WaterGhost

            “A lot has happened in the last 200 years or so.”

            Thank you for the insight!

    • Martha Anderson

      Look for Bramwell a BBC series, on netflix

  • ShaoLinKitten

    Definitely going to watch this, but I have to say, I doubt it’s the best show of the summer. That honor should go to Rectify, which is on the Sundance channel. The sad thing is, only a handful of people seem to know it exists.

  • quiltrx

    If I weren’t saving for building a new house, I would find a way to justify paying for Cinemax just to see my darling Clive.
    I totally get all the things you’re saying…but, Clive. 😉

  • understateddiva

    Well put. I have a hard time watching any of the mainstream TV shows because they aren’t escapism at all for me. A world that revolves around privileged white males who can get anyway with things I never could?? Oh, wait, I live in that every day. Little wonder I put on a RuPaul rerun instead of a new drama, more often than not.

  • My husband would leave me for Clive Owen. So we’ll probably give this a go.

  • Salasalu

    It was fantastic! I’m hooked…yuk yuk

  • WaterGhost

    It looks Goth-pretty, but I’m sick of the basic plot set-up, too. After “Mad Men”, it’s done. “Newsroom” is just a farce.

    What would be really, really interesting to me would be a plot about the handsome born-privileged white rich man who has always gotten away with being the a**hole because he was gosh! so mindbogglingly talented – smartest guy in the room, in fact – about this guy slowly realizing that he is not, in fact, the smartest guy in the room, and NEVER HAS BEEN. This is the reality that a lot of rich white men need to come to terms with. I want to observe a humiliating psychological destruction of this sort of character. Hey, maybe I’ll write a novel. Except that someone already did a book about Enron.

    It does look like a pretty show, though.

    • somebody blonde

      Parts of it are pretty, but the actual medical stuff is way too gruesome for me. I totally agree about being completely over the white male genius-asshole trope though. I honestly think that it’s the least interesting part of Mad Men (I watch that show for the women).

  • korilian

    You know, this makes me think of Anna Reynvaan who became deputy director of an Amsterdam hospital as early as 1883 and was instrumental in modernizing it and setting up proper education for the staff. Her efforts earned her threats of physical violence, but never slowed her down. She herself was of course formally trained at a school set up by another woman and had contacts with the first female doctors in the Netherlands.

    She’s also known for a public fued with a writer/doctor over his novel about an unhappy young nurse who spend all her time mooning over a handsome doctor. She thought he was full of shit.

    So yeah, to go all social justice warrior, I would watch the shit about a show about a woman like that or a show from the POV of a POC doctor in those days.

  • Kelly Wood

    This could have been “inspired by” (ripped off from) a BBC series called “London Hospital”-2003-2009. Set in 1906, it had a brilliant, cocaine-addicted surgeon and a too-smart for her own good nurse.

  • librarygrrl64

    For a great series where the too-smart-for-her-own-good DOCTOR is the lead, may I suggest Bramwell, a fabulous ’90s BBC show starring Gemma Redgrave that is still available on DVD I believe? Seems like the BBC is better at the female lead thing, at least when it comes to crime and medical shows. Men still predominate, but at least we get a Jane Tennison type every few years.