TV Review: The Knick, Season 1, Episode 1
Episode Summary: New York City, 1900. When the chief surgeon of the Knickerbocker Hospital (aka The Knick) commits suicide, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), a brilliant but troubled surgeon is appointed his successor.
REVIEW: Television has gotten awfully good lately. Just when you think you’ve seen the best the medium has to offer, something comes along and totally blows your socks off. Heck, that’s already happened twice this year, first with TRUE DETECTIVE, and then with FARGO. Add THE KNICK that that ever-growing list.
Right from the opening shot, which finds Clive Owen’s Thackery in the middle of an opium den as a fully naked prostitute wanders into view, it’s clear that THE KNICK is going to be pretty different from other TV period pieces. DOWNTON ABBEY this is not (although to be clear, I LOVE DOWNTON ABBEY). A series of quick shots follows Thackery as he wanders into the streets of NYC, hails a carriage, and injects himself with some liquid cocaine (between his toes) before starting his shift at THE KNICK. Here we get a brief glimpse at what life in a big city at the turn-of-the-century was really like, with the streets littered with filth (including the decaying carcass of a horse). All of this is brilliantly set to Cliff Martinez’ all-electronic score, which is very evocative of Tangerine Dream, and a truly unique soundscape for a show set over a hundred years ago.
All of this is evidence that Steven Soderbergh, who’s directing THE KNICK’s entire run (ten episodes the first season, another ten next season, and maybe more) is bringing the same level of craft and passion to his TV projects as he did to his films. Heck, maybe this will actually be better, as it’s worth noting his HBO telefilm BEHIND THE CANDELABRA was his best film in years. This is an A-level talent making the absolute most of a medium whose potential from great storytelling has only recently been embraced.
While only the first episode, parts of THE KNICK are dazzling. The first big set piece finds Thackery assisting his mentor, Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer – doing stand-out work) in their twelfth attempt at a C-section delivery for pregnant women in distress. All other attempts have resulted in the deaths of both the patient and the baby. The surgery is nightmarish, giving us a look at how absolutely frightening it must have been to be a surgeon in that era (not to mention how scary it would have been to be a patient). We see as bottle after bottle fills up with blood as Thackery and Christiansen desperately try to save their patients. The result is so disastrous, one surgeon immediately retires to his study and promptly blows his brains out, saying “f**k it all.”
Obviously, THE KNICK is not going to be a “fun” show, but clearly it’s going to be a brilliant one. In the first episode, running a mere fifty minutes, Soderbergh perfectly sets the stage by introducing a variety of characters, including a chain-smoking, tough-gal nun (Cara Seymour), a sweet-natured nurse (Eve Hewson – the daughter of U2’s Bono), battling ambulance drivers (who have to brawl with other drivers for patients), crooked health inspectors and more.
At the center of all this is Owen’s Thackery. He’s another flawed TV anti-hero, being a hardcore drug addict, as well as an imperious dictator to his hospital staff (his dressing down of Hewson’s nurse is vicious) and possibly a racist as well, with him none-too-thrilled at being forced to take on a black surgeon (Andre Holland) whose surgical skills possibly rival Thackery’s own. Owen hasn’t had such a good role in years, and his performance is dazzling to the extent that he seems like a shoe-in for an Emmy nomination next year. But let’s not forget, this is just the first episode! There’s another nine to go, but if they all live up to the pilot (and the early reviews suggest the show gets even better around episodes 3-4) THE KNICK is going to be another top-tier cable drama. So far, it’s thrilling.