Peak television. That’s a phrase being thrown around these days in regards to the massive amount of quality programming that exists. This is thanks to the rise of streaming sites creating content and the numerous channels on cable getting into the original programming game. It’s damn near impossible to keep up with the onslaught of good/great shows and even more impossible to predict if anything is gonna connect or become a water cooler type show. So when Steven Soderbergh decided to throw his hat into the ring of television with Clive Owen headlining, people took some notice. But it was another show that fell a bit prey to that quantity issue. Also the issue of it seeming like another white anti hero show in a time when that type of show was seemingly out of favor. Yet those who watched it praised it and the show got a second season order, so it was time for me to finally watch the show that I somehow let fall out of my viewing rotation.
Soderbergh joins the ever increasing ranks of Hollywood directors jumping into the serialized TV game with a show set in a hospital in 1900 New York City. The Knickerbocker is a hospital in the south side of Manhattan, in a poorer area. Clive Owen headlines the show as John Thackery, a surgeon with a hardcore desire to make history by pushing the surgery game into the future with new discoveries and such. But being a tv show, the guy is a bit of a dick. He can be ornery when bothered and has no real desire to have a social life, caring only about work. Oh, and he’s addicted to cocaine and opium and whores, destroying his body in the process. But he isn’t the only doctor/character in the Knick. There’s racist doctor Gallinger (Eric Johnson) who is Thacks second in command. There’s young gun Chickering (Michael Angarano) who has a chipper attitude and looks up to Thackery. There’s new nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson), a southern girl with some mystery to her. There’s the big galut of an amoral ambulance driver Cleary (Chris Sullivan), nun Harriet (Cara Seymour), greedy/sleazy hospital overseer Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), and daughter of hospital backer Cornelia (Juliet Rylance). But when we start our journey into this rich world, Cornelia throws a monkey wrench into plans. Her father wants to push a new doctor into the Knick to be Thacks number two. That’s Doctor Edwards (Andre Holland). It’s a monkey wrench because Edwards is black and this is 1900 America, so racism is abound. From there we kick start a ten hour journey into this world, following every character as their life at The Knick reverbs through their lives.
In regards to the white anti hero complaint, on it’s face it’s a valid criticism. Another show about an asshole and how he affects those around him. But that ignores the finer points of the show, ie the show itself, from presenting a case that’s it’s more than some think piece byline. Whereas all the other shows have a bit of sexiness to proceedings, an adrenaline pumping aspect that can make idiots happy, this show doesn’t have that. Thackery is not someone to look up to in any misguided way. He isn’t Walter White or Tony Soprano, a man who has started an empire and is “fahkin badass brah”. This is a miserable, pathetic man whose every act is due to his addiction. And his addiction makes him even sadder, as it is a salve for him to dull the pain of his work and the lives that are lost because of it. And of those around him, only one can even be seen as heroic and that isn’t completely true. Edwards deals with too much hatred for a nonsensical reason that no one would want to be him. We can respect him immensely, but desire to be him? Not really. So that complaint is bullshit and each episode that moves away from the premiere furthers that complaint even more moot.
What makes this show really up my alley is that it’s about the horribly messy nature of progress. The basic premise of the show, doctoring in 1900, serves that up obviously. Medicine is still pretty primitive and knowledge of the body and how to heal it is limited. But we also get the difficulty in progress in every storyline. There’s Edwards’ difficulty navigating life in America as a black man even though he’s more than qualified and a free man by law. Barrow has to deal with the economic difficulties of keeping up with medical progress. Cornelia deals with low key misogyny. Gallinger has to deal with being left in the past with outdated ideas of life. Sister Harriet has a subplot I won’t spoil that deals with issues of faith and medicine. Every aspect of the show deals with the march of time, even if a character like Chickering doesn’t get really affected by it in a negative way. Not only does the progress narrative fit my fancy, but everything is so grey, not black and white. Thack doesn’t want Edwards on not so much because he hates blacks or see them as lower, but he knows the ignorant bastards he work s on will piss and moan about a black man working on them. His drug addiction isn’t about some degenerate lifestyle but as a salve to his pain for dealing so much death to progress his field. Cleary is a perfect case study for the show, a man who does some shitty things but has a decent heart overall. And what else I like? The show is unflinching, shoving our face in the horror of medicine at the time. You can die from anything and the mess that comes about is gruesome.
This show was working on a high level from those deeper thematic elements before I even get to the masterful direction from Soderbergh and Owens amazing performance. The cast is all amazing, led by Clive doing career best work. He can perfectly go from brilliant mind to filthy animal on a dime and it feels natural. Soderbergh has always been an interesting director for me because I respect him immensely, but I very rarely connect to his work on a deep level. Traffic is maybe the only movie to do so. He usually cares more for technical prowess and an experimental bent to his projects. But this is a totally human show with everyone being 3 dimensional and interesting characters. And the show is technically amazing, shot like nothing else on TV. Soderbergh utilizes some anachronistic stylings to make this show even about progress in subtler ways. A handheld, digital style does not scream 1900. Nor does the synth score by Cliff Martinez. It makes the show a propulsive, unique show that can’t be missed. Soderbergh has done amazing work here and it may be the best thing he’s done and I can’t wait to see what comes from season 2.