“The Knick” Gets Under Your Skin

Posted on August 08, 2014

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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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