Cinemax has been slowly, and quietly, changing its image from an after-hours soft-core programming channel to something that is quickly becoming known for smart and beautifully shot shows. With previous successes in ‘Banshee’ and ‘Strike Back,’ Cinemax is taking a leap of faith that its viewers will latch on to a period drama about a general hospital in New York City in the early 1900’s. The risk is definitely worth the rewards when it comes to ‘The Knick.’
‘The Knick’ throws viewers into the world of Dr. John W. Thackery, as he wakes up with the cloudy haze of opium still thick in his head and a prostitute under his arm. Thackery is the typical anti-hero, incredibly talented but not altogether level-headed or always likeable. Thackery leads a life of controlled chaos, and you can hardly blame him. The opening scenes take the viewer through New York as it once was: harsh, rough, dirty and unapologetic as Thackery is rushing to The Knick to perform a highly dangerous surgery with little chance of success. Throw in a hospital nearing financial ruin, a drug addicted lead surgeon, and the threat of tuberculosis and ‘The Knick’ is the perfect remedy for a dull summer TV schedule.
These were the days when surgery was a game of trial and error, and the operating room was run like a theatre. Explanations about the procedure are delivered to the onlookers in the same way an actor would address an audience, as if the surgery serves the purpose of entertainment in addition to saving a life. There is a stark contrast between the complete silence of the room and the complete chaos on the table. Many of the scenes in the operating theatre are executed without the assistance of a musical score, which is not often the norm in modern television. In this case it works beautifully. Men in three piece suits look down as men in white coats cut and slash at their patients, trying desperately to save lives while constantly on the edge of failure or innovation. There is a certain madness to the methods that are used.
Owen is undoubtedly the star of this series. As has come to be expected of him, he delivers a powerful and convincing performance as a man deeply affected by his responsibilities and mistakes, followed by demons both mental and physical. Thackery is brilliant in his medicine and research but lacks the personal relationships and experiences to help him deal with his past. The rest of the cast, while not as well known, are equally as impressive in their enactments. Andre Holland (Dr. Algernon Edwards) stands out with a sophisticated and accurate representation of an African-American doctor trying to live in a world that has not yet come to terms with the inherent wrongs in racial discrimination, and won't for some time still. The complicated dynamics between Dr. Edwards and the rest of the White members of staff at ‘The Knick’ is enough of a lesson in history on its own to draw in attention. Jeremy Bobb does an excellent job as Herman Barrow, the hospital administrator with more greed than common sense. Eric Johnson (Dr. Everett Gallinger), Michael Angarano (Dr. Bertram 'Bertie' Chickering Jr.) and Eve Hewson (Lucy Elkins) round out a fantastic supporting cast, and Juliet Rylance (Cornelia Robertson) provides one of the few strong female leads in the show.
Although ‘The Knick’ is spectacular in much of what it accomplishes in the first season, it is not without some faults. The tumult of the first episode sets the scene for a hospital that is in a constant battle to stay one step ahead of disease and disaster, and yet, some of the episodes feel slow at times. One thing some viewers may have a hard time getting used to are the behaviours of many of the main characters on ‘The Knick.’ Rampant racism and sexism, while historically accurate, is a hard pill to swallow and ‘The Knick’ shoves it shamelessly down your throat. This was a time when men had all the say and women weren’t to worry their pretty little heads about it.
There are more than a few moments that I promise will have some viewers cringing and turning their heads from the screen, but I think that is exactly what ‘The Knick’ is going for, and exactly what makes the show feel so authentic. This is no ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ While many other medical shows get down and dirty when showing procedures, there is something about the blunt gore of an emergency caesarean section performed with a hand-cranked suction machine and no gloves that makes you feel slightly nauseated to watch. It is, without a doubt, edge-of-your-seat entertainment.
I think Cinemax has done something special here. The Knick has combined the acting talents of Owen with the magnificent directorial vision of Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh. Everything from the costuming to the accents to the scenery feels plucked straight from New York, circa the early 1900’s. ‘The Knick’ feels pulled straight from history, and the truth is that much of it is. The New York Knickerbocker Hospital began in 1963 as the Manhattan Dispensary. It was a temporary space designed for incapacitated and invalid Civil War veterans. In 1885 it was officially turned into the Manhattan Hospital and it was only general hospital of its kind to be located north of Ninety-Ninth Street. It wasn’t until 1913 that it was renamed to The Knickerbocker Hospital where, with the outstanding work of brilliant surgeons and doctors, it became one of the leading centres for the treatment of diseases such as polio and alcoholism and for advancements in the field of gynecology.
“From such humble beginnings grew the astonishing modern world in which we now live,” says Thackery in the first episode. Watching ‘The Knick’ is like watching history unfold. Each new discovery and advancement brings the medical field closer to what we have come to expect today. It is exciting to immerse yourself in this world and remember how far we have come not only in the medical field, but as a society. ‘The Knick’ has already been renewed for a second ten-episode season, and I know that I will be watching.
‘The Knick’ airs this Friday at 10pm only on Cinemax.