“Welcome to The Knick.”
The Knick is the fictional Knickerbocker hotel in 1900 New York. It’s a hospital that was once part of an affluent neighborhood but now finds itself in an area falling to poverty. Still it’s a place where innovations are being made on a daily basis, thanks to an inspired group of doctors led by Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Frewer) and his relentless search to find ways to decrease the mortality rate in surgery patients. So the hospital continues to have a great reputation, even if the local poverty is now causing The Knick to lose money, something the board of directors is looking to turn around.
In the pilot we meet Dr. Christiansen and his Deputy Chief of Surgery Dr. John Thackery (Owen). Together they are attempting to increase the survival of both mother and child when surgery is required to deliver the baby. Yet another failure leads to the suicide of Christiansen and the promotion of Thackery, considered a brilliant surgeon himself. The promotion comes with a condition from the board. He must accept as his deputy Dr. Algernon Edwards (Holland), who has worked with the most brilliant medical minds in Europe. He comes with a long list of qualifications that prove him to be a brilliant surgeon in his own right. The problem is that he also happens to be black. Thackery resists accepting Edwards, because he doesn’t believe the patients will allow a black doctor to operate on them. It’s a fear that’s founded in the reality of 1900 New York.
Thackery has his own demons to deal with. He’s a drug addict. His cocaine addiction came from Dr. Christiansen, who continues to haunt him through his memories and visions. It’s a wonderful opportunity for Matt Frewer to continue to be a part of the show even though he’s been dead since the pilot. Thackery is also obsessive about discovery. He will do anything to beat someone else to the next groundbreaking moment in medical science. He’ll risk the lives of patients to experiment with his new ideas and procedures. It’s the kind of personality that makes one actually appreciate the modern FDA. He’s a rather functional addict. The drug allows him to work long hours and gives him the energy to be so driven. Of course, there’s a cost. He’s destroyed almost every vein in his body through his injections. It also leads to a swift downward spiral when a war in the Philippines dries up the supply of the drug. He’ll go to any lengths to find a substitute, and it leads to incredibly bad decisions with tragic consequences. He has drawn nurse Lucy Elkins (Hewson) into his addiction, not only threatening her life and career, but creating a romantic triangle with Bertie, who is in love with the nurse. Owen and Eve Hewson have one of the strangest chemistries in television. It’s quite perverse and twisted, but it also has a realism and intensity that pull you completely into the web. Talk about your destructive relationships.
The hospital is populated with a nice balance of characters. We have Dr. Everett Gallinger (Johnson), who was Thackery’s choice to be his deputy. Gallinger comes to resent Edwards, and the line between prejudice and jealousy is blurred as he comes into constant conflict with Edwards. It doesn’t help that he sees that Thackery begins to respect Edwards’ abilities, and the season begins with a bad fall for Gallinger. He loses his child when he accidentally infects him with a pathogen from the hospital. He eventually loses his wife and his job at the hospital.
Dr. Bertie Chickering (Angarano) is a young doctor from a long line of distinguished surgeons. He’s at The Knick because of Thackery. He idolizes the man and would do anything he asks. Bertie’s father wants his son to either join him at his practice or at least find another doctor to work under. Senior is a bit of an elitist, and he doesn’t trust Thackery at all. He feels his son is belittled and will never achieve his own full potential with Thackery. Bertie will come to ask those questions himself when he finally sees the real Thackery by the end of the season.
Edwards himself has to struggle with the prejudice. He finds patients do not want him to touch them. He’s not really allowed to do anything of consequence at the hospital. His title means nothing. So he opens a secret clinic in the basement boiler room, where he treats black and poor patients while developing his own innovations in medicine. It’s only during a racial riot that his clinic is discovered, and Thackery begins to see the man for his mind.
Finally, the hospital administrator is Herman Barrow (Bobb), who has been embezzling funds and has also gotten in deep with a local mobster.
The hospital is not the only setting for drama here. A B story involves the spreading of typhus to wealthy neighborhoods. It was long considered a poor person’s disease because of the availability of proper sanitation in wealthier areas. The puzzle is investigated by a corrupt health inspector named Jacob Speight (Fierro) who is working with Victoria Robinson (Savoy) to track down the woman responsible. It leads to the story of Typhoid Mary. You also have corrupt ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Sullivan) blackmailing Sister Harriet (Seymour), who is performing illegal abortions. These two side stories run along as the season progresses.
I have to warn you that this show is not for those with a weak stomach or a sensitivity to gore. While we might not have the likes of Freddy Krueger patrolling the halls of The Knick, there is a tremendous amount of gore. This is not like your typical network hospital show. The images take you ringside with these operations. You’ll be witness to every bloody detail for each of these procedures. For me it was more the use of needles. Strangely enough, they are not used much in the surgeries, but rather Thackery’s constant need to shoot up. The production values are high, so no detail is spared at any time here.
That production detail extends to the hospital and the surrounding 1900 New York streets. The show does a remarkable job of bringing this era and location alive. It might be easier inside the hospital where it’s all about the set dressing. But in the world we are brought into a place where horses and carriages still prevailed. This is a place where electricity is just finding its way to common use. The telephone is a brand-new device that many people are not yet accustomed to using. This is a time when surgeons did not use gloves or masks. It’s a time cocaine was the most common way to relieve pain during and after surgery. It’s a time when a doctor believed pulling all of your teeth could cure and prevent insanity. Finally, it’s a time when cocaine addiction is treated with heroin.
Even with such production values and an incredibly realistic, if barbaric world, it’s the performances that make this show as good as it is. And nowhere is that more evident than with Clive Owens. He has completely morphed into the part both physically and emotionally. His portrayal of Thackery’s drive and addiction are almost too realistic. It’s a painful evolution to watch, but you honestly can’t look away. I do when the needles come out, but I look away reluctantly. Owens demands your attention for fear you’ll miss that subtle clue as to what is going on here. He’s supported by a very solid cast, but I sense that he brings everyone’s game higher with is own commitment to the part.
If the show has a flaw, it’s the sheer number of medical breakthroughs that just so happen to occur with these characters. The time is quite compressed from idea to practical application, and of course these are fictional characters making many real-world inventions and innovations. It makes for great drama, but there are times they take it a little too far. Fortunately, we are introduced to new inventions not attributed to these characters. Edison’s X-ray machine is demonstrated, and it amazes Thackery. Of course, this was before the dangers of that radiation were known, and we see people using the machine almost as a toy for hours. Soderbergh resists the temptation to have one of our characters suggest the dangers.
One of the best aspects of the storytelling is the surgical theatre itself. This was a day where the operating lived up to the theatre name. Operations were performances. Surgeons were just as concerned with the audience in attendance as they were with the patient on the table. It was all about demonstrating great skill and innovative techniques. They worked to impress those around them and build up their own names in the profession. It is also a place of redemption for Thackery. He wants to solve the problem that led to his idol’s suicide. It is here in the surgery theatre that he wishes to make such breakthroughs with others watching his greatness.
The entire series is directed by Steven Soderbergh. His unique style and storytelling can be found in every frame of the series. A couple of years ago he announced he was stepping away from feature film for a while. Little did we know he’d find the perfect outlet for his creativity in television. It’s not surprising, however. More and more A-list actors and directors are finding that cable television offers them a world of opportunity you can’t find in a feature film. With production values measuring up to that standard and a long form to tell the story, shows like this are transforming the television landscape almost on a daily basis. This is another example of just how good television can be right now. It’s an exciting time for reviewers like myself to get to binge-watch these things to deliver them up to entertainment fans like yourself.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. The high-definition image presentation is a study in contrast and a series of exaggerated styles. Hospital scenes deliver an explosion of bright white lighting contrasted with the rather dull environments that remain poorly lit. Soderbergh has a habit of drawing out a particular single color in scenes. You’ll find his use of red here to be a perfect example of that style. It doesn’t matter if it’s blood or a costume; he pulls the color out of an otherwise drab color palette common to such a period piece. The episodes use darkness quite well. Black levels are outstanding and completely necessary. Much of the wonderful character moments are performed in shadows.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is there to serve the dialog. This is not an explosive show in the sound department. Everything is quite contained and intimate, and that’s exactly what you’ll find in the audio presentation. The singular standout is a rather pulsing score that soon disappears into the background while still managing to hit the right emotional beats.
There are Audio Commentaries on select episodes.
Each episode (except the Pilot) has a 2-3 minute Post-Op feature.
I’m a pretty huge Star Trek fan. One of my favorites memories comes from the fourth movie. McCoy has to visit a present-day (1980’s) hospital to rescue a member of the crew who fell and was severely injured. As he’s making his way through the halls, he constantly remarks about the barbarism of the state of 1980’s medicine. For the film it made for some rather humorous moments, to be sure. When you watch a show like The Knick, which doesn’t hold back on the images, you start to see a scene like that in an entirely new light. Many of the things done here look absolutely barbaric to us, but look a little closer, and you realize it was cutting edge for the time. You’ll find yourself feeling lucky you didn’t have to rely on this level of medical care. The show really gives us a sober look at how far medicine has come. “It’s time to start getting better.”