If there's one reason to watch The Knick, it's this: Steven Soderbergh makes New York City circa 1900, against all odds, altogether resplendent.
Oh, but there is more than that. Soderbergh's also the director of photography and editor. This is seriously elite filmmaking with masterful pacing and a wicked sharp point of view. You guys, it's just so pretty that in the first 3 minutes and 15 seconds, I almost drooled on myself.
Also spectacular, out of the gate, is the musical score. From the moment it starts pumping, it readies us, steadies us for the tone of The Knick. It's gutsy, unexpected and irresistible. (God bless, Cliff Martinez, electronica composer extraordinaire responsible for a half a dozen of Soderbergh's films plus the musically-propelled Drive and Only God Forgives.) Juxtaposing a modern more aggressive and sordid 'Love on a Real Train' Tangerine Dream sound with horses and buggies is, I don't even know. But whoever pitched it needs some kind of award.
Clive Owen is expertly cast as Dr. John Thackery, a drug addict racist egomaniac with a shit-ton of charisma (because Clive Owen). Unlike his confrere, Dr. Christenson, (who shoots himself in the episode's first act) John is still cool with walking on this razor's edge. On one side, major medical breakthroughs on the verge and on the other, the magnitude of the plight of, well, New York City circa 1900. The characters, fairly well-drawn from these two circumstances, fill in the surrounding scenery. My favorite being Cara Seymour's Sister Harriet, a wry cigarette smoking nun who runs the hospital's orphanage. Most of her scenes play off of Tom Cleary (played by Chris Sullivan), the Knick's ambulance operator who also stands out as one to watch.
There's also the matter of Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) a black doctor hired by the Knick's wealthy benefactors who is loaded with conflict for various reasons, not least of all the knowledge he brings over from studying in a more medically-progressive Europe. The show also gives us two junior surgeons who have yet to really distinguish themselves other than aesthetically and a young nurse. Sure! Hey don't forget a corrupt cigar-smoking city health inspector and a bespectacled hamstrung hospital superintendent, too! Did I mention that John Thackery cannot function without injecting cocaine regularly? Because of course he can't.
If the characters and story sound ho-hum, they are. So mundane that I began to really wonder, is there an objective here that's tucked underneath these platitudes? I mean the script is smart enough in places that the writers, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, must know this betrayal of originality is nearing unforgivable. (To say nothing of the fact that this show enticed Steven Soderbergh out of retirement from directing!) But maybe cliches in a period piece are an astute way to reflect our maturation. Even more than that, maybe they're effective at showing us how sick and tired we are of being sick and tired. (Masters of Sex set in the late 50s is doing something similar.) And if it's not purposeful on the part of The Knick to trot out these tropes once again, then I guess that in the very second scene of 'Method and Madness', the camera pausing to linger on kids beating a dead horse isn't a wink at us.
Bits and Pieces
*Steel yourself for the amount of blood and scalpels and talk of really upsetting medical issues. (This is coming from someone who reviews Hannibal.)
*The operating theatre. My god. It just turned out better than they even planned, would be my guess.
*The vacuum, suction, gas (ether) and cauterizer are all hand (or foot) operated.
*Someone likes Shakespeare! At least Hamlet and King Henry VI.
Dr. Christenson: “It seems we are still lacking.”
Thackery: “Your god always wins. It is the longest unbeaten streak in the history of the world.”
Thackery:"More has been learned about the treatment of the human body in the last five years than was learned in the previous 500."
Catherine: “Twelve attempts at the same surgery with no survivors would drive any good man mad.”
Thackery: “You can only run away and join the circus if the circus wants you. I don’t want you in my circus.”
Cleary: “Hey, do penguins ever just wanna go for a good poke?”
Sister Harriet: “Oh, we get curious. But then they show us a photograph of your sorry face and we run right back into the arms of God. Your ugly mug’s responsible for more girls staying virgins than the chastity belt.”
Thackery: “Gentlemen, atomizers on. Everyone scrubbed, washed, cleansed, deloused, purified by God?
Gallinger: “All except that last one, Thack.”
Thackery: “It’s been tried once before on a Labrador retriever.”
Bertie: “What happened?”
Thackery: “Not a day goes by where I don’t miss that dog.”