Sunday, August 10, 2014

"The Knick": Uncomfortably Unique

Photo:  Mary Cybulski/HBO/Rolling Stone
A free trial of Cinemax allowed me the unexpected pleasure of watching the premiere of the Steven Soderbergh period piece and medical drama, The Knick. The show takes place in New York City circa 1900. The choice of time period creates a raw and moody atmosphere in which the examination of the foundation of the health system provides viewers with not only a tense viewing experience but also an insight into how our current medical complex came to be.

The pilot is perhaps a bit overloaded with turn of the 20th century references which feels a bit like an Upton Sinclair and Jacob Riis mash-up at moments. However, all of the right production elements come into play to make this pilot episode, Method and Madness, a captivating hour of television. 

As if to thumb the nose at network television medical dramas, the first five minutes of The Knick gives us full frontal female nudity, a cocaine addicted genius surgeon, a gruesome and almost primitive cesarean procedure that fails to save both the mother and child and a suicide. An underlying anachronistic electronic score elevates the tension and helps establish the unique and dark tone of the show. The color palette alone is enough to set the mood with muted lantern lit rooms and the dull colors depicting street grunge. Another interesting play with light centers around the fictional hospital, "The Knickerbocker" where electricity is being installed. As if to illuminate the dawn of new era in medical technology, race relations, gender equality, government corruption and societal upheavals in relation to immigration and class - the first episode ends with the lights coming to life, drowning out the muted tones of another century.

The interjection of racial prejudice, sexism, immigration and child labor feels a bit heavy handed in this premiere episode, but I interpret this overload of period specific social issues as an attempt to snag viewers. This is the first glimpse into the ten episode season that promises to flush out these themes and examine them, and I am completely okay with that. Clive Owen's performance as Dr. Thackery, a severe and ill-tempered surgical madman with a cocaine addiction is just captivating. The David Milch, Deadwood-like dialogue is borderline poetic at times and yet it feels authentic. Clive Owen's eulogy for his dead friend and fellow junkie mentor, Dr. J.M. Christenson, is a prime example of this type of writing. 

The story is good, if not slightly overshadowed by the cultural themes, and introduces us to the seedy underbelly of the foundation of our modern medical complex. We get to meet The Knickerbocker board of directors to understand the flow of money through the hospital and what compromises are made to keep the doors open. This leads to understanding the capacity for corruption within the Health Department, and how that corruption endangers the lives of the poor. I thought the inclusion of the ambulance rivalry was historically enlightening. I had no idea that hospitals were paying out for patients to be brought to their doors. But it makes sense, and the exploration of these different interconnecting levels of influence tie up nicely in the episode's arc while hinting at what we can expect in coming episodes. 

Viewers are only allowed a glimpse into the lives of the medical drama's main characters, and though Owen's portrayal of Thackery makes him unlikable, there is still something incredibly magnetic about his navigation between self destruction and feeding his savior complex. I'm interested in learning more about the working relationship between Thackery and Christenson likely told in flashbacks. The introduction to Dr. Algernon Edwards as Thackery's new assistant chief of surgery (Andre Holland) promises to keep things tense as racial relations in the early 20th century are navigated. Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) will be our avenue at accessing the rising women's rights movement as the progressive social welfare branch of The Knickerbocker. 

The medical realities of surgery with bare hands in front of an open theater of observers feels primitive and graphic. The show does a great job of making you want to turn away from the television even though your practical mind is screaming that none of what you are seeing is real. It feels real, and that means a success in Soderbergh's direction. The camera lingers on the surgical procedures and blood to create this viewing effect, and yet it's an important lesson in medical history and our own advancements in technology. 

The Knick is unlike anything else on television. I think history buffs and David Milch fans will instantly connect with the show, but any viewer seeking a unique vision in storytelling will find The Knick is worth the squirm. 

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