Cinemax Cuts Itself a Piece of Prestige Series Pie with "The Knick" Review

Any show that falls under the description of “period piece” has a considerably harder time getting made due to the high expense involved in reproducing a bygone era combined with the seemingly increasing likelihood that the show won’t make it past its first season and, ultimately, make its broadcast network a profit. That probably explains why shows fitting that description, like Deadwood, Rome, and now The Knick, tend to pop up more on premium networks where recouping expenses through advertising isn’t a concern: they just need to produce compelling drama and see if their audience, who’ve already paid, will bite. The Knick boasts production values that beautifully recreate early 1900s New York and boasts a cast led by Clive Owen that seizes your attention in the first 10 minutes of the pilot and keeps you entranced—unless you’re a bit squeamish at the sight of fake blood and body parts—through the season’s end.

Sewing together familiar characterizations and dynamics from tried and true shows like Mad Men, House, and more, The Knick creates a number of different worlds within its prestigious but underfunded hospital and ties them together in the operating room, the bloody beating heart of the series. It starts with a literal ‘bang’ in an act that simultaneously takes away the chief surgeon and mentor to Dr. John W. Thackery (Owen) and works to fill us in on the nature of the work of 1900s-era surgeons: they’re fighting a losing war with death and the setbacks in innovation can be severely demoralizing.  Just as Thackery steps into his new position as The Knickerbocker Hospital’s chief surgeon, he gets his first taste of politics as the hospital administrator Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) forces him to take on Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) as his new second-in-command, which rankles Thackery’s original choice Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson).

Meanwhile, the hospital struggles to keep the lights on due to an administrator (Herman Barrow) embezzling funds from key projects;  ambulance man Mr. Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and his verbal sparring partner Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) strike up a controversial private side business; a new nurse (Eve Hewson) takes a keen interest in Dr. Thackery despite the advances of his protégé Dr. Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano).

With so many stories going on simultaneously it would be easy to understand if one or two side characters fell by the wayside and their stories ended abruptly, but instead every story is pursued and most of them to very interesting ends. The overarching story, of course, follows Dr. Thackery who balances a chemical dependency (cocaine…and then some) with his drive to conquer death and his invention of new techniques to perform surgeries (like a C-section) that have historically resulted in death due to well-documented but seemingly uncombatable factors. His initial clash with Dr. Edwards ultimately bears some great dramatic and comic fruits as Edwards’s off the books enterprises end up playing a pivotal role in the evolution of treatment at the hospital as well as a lynchpin in a race riot.

Plot-wise, The Knick goes to some wild extremes, but the pay-off always comes in the form of more character development that keeps The Knick’s slow-burning flame at a steady intensity. At times it feels like certain plot points are pushed along faster than they need to be (like Thackery’s drug addiction) and other threads (like Thackery’s potential rivalry with Dr. Zinberg) are cheated of further development because they’re being used for no other reason than to create a breaking point for other stories. It could just be a case of having too many balls in the air and the writers feeling the need to land them all before the season’s end, but it feels more like The Knick’s writers thought they’d have one or two more episodes for their season and thus just had to wrap up threads sooner than expected. Either way, these are minor complaints in a show that got most everything right straight out of the gate.

With Steven Soderbergh’s guiding every episode as Director, production values are top-notch with some beautiful sets and well done but understandably limited outdoors shots. The most striking thing from a visual perspective, however, are the surgery scenes which don’t shy away from gushing blood for the sake of portraying the grim reality of early 1900s surgery. Combine that with an eerie but fun electronic soundtrack which contrasts which the analog world we’re watching, and the show stands out as a memorable period piece series.

The Blu-ray set also includes an Ultraviolet digital copy.

"The Knick: The Complete First Season" is on sale August 11, 2015 and is rated tv-ma. Drama. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Jack Amiel, Michael Begler, Steven Katz. Starring Cara Seymour, Clive Owen, Eric Johnson, Juliet Rylance, Michael Angarano, Chris Sullivan.

Aug
19
2015
Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.

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