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 V.23 No.33 | August 14 - 20, 2014 

Idiot Box

Medical History

“The Knick” on Cinemax

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A few years ago, director Steven Soderbergh announced he was thinking about retiring from the film biz. He’s been fairly busy since then, and if his involvement in the new Cinemax series “The Knick” is any indication, it’s going to be a pretty active retirement.

“The Knick” is a visonary 10-part limited series starring Clive Owen (Children of Men, Sin City, “Hemingway & Gellhorn”). Owen plays Dr. John W. Thackery, a surgeon at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital, circa 1900. Thackery is a raging egotist with a well-developed god complex and an unquenchable addiction to opiates. He is also, as is often the case in TV, a phenomenally gifted doctor and a groundbreaking pioneer in surgical technique.

The show is written and created by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler. Amiel and Begler’s resume (screenplays for The Prince and Me, Raising Helen and The Shaggy Dog) doesn’t offer any indication they had this sort of ambitious historical drama in them. “The Knick” is dark, nervy and occasionally quite gory in a way that, well, the Tim Allen remake of The Shaggy Dog just wasn’t. Heavy credit, perhaps, goes to Soderbergh and his guiding hand. He’s definitely working the indie side of his brain (Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Kafka; Full Frontal; Bubble) as opposed to the Hollywood side (Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovich, Contagion, Magic Mike). Honestly the setup isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. It’s basically “House” but with horse-drawn carriages. But Owen’s imposing presence and Soderbergh’s stylistic twitches add up to some compelling television.

As the show kicks off, Dr. Thackery (partially based on the real historical figure of William Stewart Halsted) is appointed the new leader of the hospital’s surgery staff. He only gets the job because his mentor, Dr. Christenson (Matt Frewer doubling up on the doctor roles after “Orphan Black”), has just committed suicide. (Well, it was nice seeing you again, Matt.) The dawn of the 20th century is a hell of a time to run a hospital. In addition to battling his drug addiction and revolutionizing the practice of medicine, Thackery is forced to cope with the introduction of electricity to New York City and the racial integration of the hospital staff.

Stylish camera work and some anachronistic ambient/electronic music give the show an almost surreal tone. Doctors and nurses in starched smocks drifting through white-tiled corridors make for some hypnotic imagery. “The Knick” doesn’t shy away from the gore either, giving the entire thing a distinct bleach-white-and-blood-red palette. This series employs a lot of practical special effects, resulting in a lot more intestines than you see in most medical shows. And given the still-primitive nature of the medicine being practiced, the patient survival rate is a lot lower than your average episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Feel-good period drama, this ain’t.

“The Knick” has got the look and feel of old New York down patfrom the coal smoke in the air to the dead horses in the street. Shockingly, the entire thing is shot in Brooklyn with minimal assist from the CGI department. It’s an immersive trip back in time that is neither quaint nor dull. So if the idea of crossing “Boardwalk Empire” with “ER” sounds like a good idea to you, scrub up and join in.

“The Knick” airs Fridays at 8pm on Cinemax.
 

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