You’d be hard pressed to find another person watching it, but those in the know have been talking about it, practically begging for your attention, for years. It was said then and bears repeating, The Knick is the best show on television that you’re not watching (note how that article was written a year ago, but it doesn’t help that the show is relegated to the premium-cable purgatory that is Cinemax). I was hesitant to throw another hastily written post into the fray, lamenting yet again how this gem is on no ones radar. But with the premiere of season two on Friday, I feel compelled to join the cause, or at the very least, finally get my thoughts of this finely crafted series down on paper. If one of the hundred people who read this (maybe more like ten) picks up the remote to tune in, my job will be done. Until then, lets make things perfectly clear: The Knick is the best show on television.
Set in a turn-of-the-century surgical ward, The Knick is not for the faint of heart and definitely not for the faint of stomach. The hyper-realistic surgeries had me squirming in my seat; the opening shot of the whole series is a experimental cesarean section procedure that is, well, very detailed. However, the grisly dissections serve not for shock factor or to show off the makeup department, but to purposefully reveal the universal tenet central to The Knick: we are all just bodies. Beneath our fleshy surface, past our best laid plans and political opinions, there lies the same fundamental parts: meat and bones, but also fear and love, pride and corruption.
Director-camera operator-editor-renaissance man-show runner Steven Soderbergh masterfully captures these internal struggles within each shot; often the focus is not the primary actors that are speaking or moving, but the reactions of a key character in the background. The camera always serves to further character development or story; it can be best described as acrobatic, slithering between doctors in the surgical arena to capture every line, every reaction, and make the audience feel like an assisting nurse trying to hold it all together. Long, beautifully choreographed and lit shots always serve as a vehicle to character development (and often not the character that you think). Thanks to this season’s addition of more extreme close ups to complement the sinuous tracking shots, we witness how the scene changes them internally and, like them, often tune out the rest to grapple with the implications on their own psyche. Soderbergh and company seamlessly portrays the internal thoughts of each character onto their external world unlike anything I’ve seen in moving pictures. (Soderbergh’s amazing filming style and the technical perfection of The Knick is explored further here.)
The Knick is a deeply personal experience, the lives of each character laid to bare. But within these lives are deep racial and political divides that are uncomfortably relevant as you watch. Dr Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) is the first black surgeon at The Knickerbocker Hospital, and as you can imagine for a Victorian era piece, must face his own battles at every turn. Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), the daughter of the hospital’s rich benefactor, but despite her enormous aptitude and generous nature for the disenfranchised, is browbeaten to meet the standard of a child-bearing, subservient woman. So with each snide remark, each slur, each time they are passed over, it is a direct emotional connection to the viewer; we feel and witness every bit of pain they do along their journey. Racism, immigration, sexism, corruption. The Knick shows turn-of-the-century issues that we still face each day and turns them into personal affronts on the audience. Empathy is never short supply.
Of course, to talk about The Knick must also be a practice of examining chief of surgery Dr John Thackery, portrayed by the transcendent Clive Owen. In Thack we find a gifted but flawed practitioner. In a constantly changing field of medicine (as he says in the series premiere, “More has been learned about the treatment of the human body in the last five years than in the last five hundred.”), Thack resorts to injecting cocaine to maintain a competitive edge. For him, solving all the world’s medical mysteries, cracking the problem of blood transfusions or curing opiate addiction across the board, are just a matter of will. If only he focuses enough on the problem, the solution will present itself when put under a microscope. The result is a delusional man driven by ambition, yes, but one that is fundamentally driven to do good. The year 1901 is brutal to be sure; racial divides fueled by violence, sickness often resulting in death, poor left to freeze. But its also a time of sweeping change; mortality rates are dropping, electricity is lighting the dark, horseless carriages zipping down the streets, there is excitement in the air. The Knick could easily be a downer, and at first glance it may seem as such, but at its core, and at the core of its main character, its deeply optimistic and created with love. The only things preventing our characters from doing the good they desire are external factors. For Edwards its race, for Thackery, addiction. Factors outside their control, and often placed on them by society at large. Like anatomy, the mysteries of the body, and each other, can be discovered if only we are willing to open up and take a peek inside.