Why Aren’t You Watching “The Knick”?

By: Daniel Reynolds

We’re now four episodes into the second season of The Knick. Episode five airs tomorrow night at 10pm, which brings the tally of aired episodes up to 15. It’s not an insurmountable number to binge watch, if you’re into that sort of thing. I say this because, well, you should be watching The Knick–it may just be the best, most consistently gripping show on television.

Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) of the Knick wants to help.

Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) of the Knick wants to help.

True to its namesake, The Knick is set in the Knickerbocker Hospital of New York City circa 1900. Roaming its fictionalized halls is Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), an enterprising surgeon and man of rakish charms (who also happens to be a functioning drug addict). Keep in mind, at the turn of the 20th century, surgery was not yet a routine endeavour. People were dying from hernias and appendicitis. It was up to men like Thack–it was all men in those days–to basically invent the procedures we now take for granted. But this is only the dramatic foreground for The Knick; winding through the rest of its hallways and the streets of the city are stories involving issues of class, race and gender. And to its credit, rather than be some stodgy historical polemic, the show absolutely pulses with a rare potent vibrancy. This is great television.

So, why aren’t you watching The Knick?

1) Because it’s on Cinemax

This is a fair point. The Knick runs on a channel not exactly known as a bastion for quality television programming. Case in point: After tonight’s episode of The Knick (and it’s replay), the channel is showing something called The Great Bikini Bowling Bash. I suspect the Emmy committee will skip out on that one.

Still, let me disabuse you of this first instinct upon hearing the words “it airs on Cinemax.” If you’re entertaining visions of softcore porn, I’m here to reassure you The Knick is a thoughtful and urgent piece of art. It uses its setting and time period to explore complex and interconnected narratives involving doctors, nurses, nuns, labourers, and the upper class (OK, yes, there are saucy scenes in brothels, too). It is brilliantly directed by Steven Soderbergh, sharply written by series creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (with help from Steven Katz), and features a moody electronic score from Cliff Martinez. It just oozes a certain prestige, even as it also oozes bodily fluids (blood in this case; come on guys!).

2) Because it’s a period piece

That’s the negative you took away from my previous paragraph? Geez. Yes, The Knick comes to us from a different time, one in which electricity was just catching on, horses were still prevalent, and women and minorities were treated as second-class citizens (so maaaaybe not everything has quite changed).

That said, through Soderbergh’s able and dynamic direction, we’re shown something that feels current. His camera is always keenly placed, or aggressively moving to-and-fro. We bask in the glow of oil lamps and the new electric circuits. We’re made to feel the hustle and bustle of New York City streets, and the silent cavernous space of the white-tiled operating theatre. In between there are underground wrestling rings, courthouses, the NYC ports, and the rich, ornate manors of the upper class. It’s actually a wonder Soderbergh and crew were able to stage the show at all. There is a lot to take in.

Yes, there will be blood.

Yes, there will be blood.

3) Because it’s too gory

Busted. I was hoping to avoid talking about this because I, too, tend to avert my eyes. The Knick is resolutely not shy about shooting numerous scenes in the aforementioned operating theatre, back in the day when it could sometimes look like an abattoir. You may see: a woman with syphilis get her arm stitched to her nose, a pregnant woman go through a c-section, needles getting injected into various body parts and orifices. It’s, uh, not pretty.

But hold on, I’m veering off-track. Despite The Knick‘s bloody moments, it’s important to note here the, ahem, heart in each of them. What the show attempts to dramaticize is more than just medical suspense a la ER, it is attempting to visualize what exactly these early surgeons had to do to save people. Yes, it was gory, but that’s what medical advances entailed back then. And good lord is it ever entertaining to watch (between fingers splayed across my eyes).

4) Because it stars Clive Owen

This complaint comes to us from all of the people who saw Owen in any of latest movies: Last Knights, Blood Ties, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Words and Pictures, etc. Woof. It’s been hard times for the man who once carried pictures like Children of Men and Croupier (going way back). Owen is 51 now (wait, really?) and looks far more haggard in The Knick then he has in his movie star work. But when he cleans up on the show, usually to talk someone into something, he’s able to really captivate. We forget sometimes in this “Golden Age” of TV, what it means to have an actor of Owen’s magnetic stature (bad filmography notwithstanding) lead an ensemble drama. On a basic level, it means we get a pile of well-acted scenes. But more than that, it gives us something really compelling to watch.

A snapshot of just one of many storylines in The Knick.

A snapshot of just one of many storylines in The Knick.

5) Because it’s another show about a troubled white man

Much like The Wire (yes, I’m going there), The Knick‘s ostensible lead is a straight white man with a healthy sexual appetite and a predilection for self-destruction. (In this case, Thack is into drugs rather than McNulty’s booze.) Like The Wire, some of the story is framed through these familiar eyes, but not all. In fact, the show most comes alive when it shifts somewhere else–to Nurse Elkins’ (Eve Hewson) fast-hardening eyes, to the doomed affair of Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) and Algernon (Andre Holland), to Herman Barrow’s (Jeremy Bobb) constant conniving. There’s always something going on just around the corner in The Knick, and how its supposed side events gradually inform or shape the main character’s journey is both refreshing and totally unbeknownst to him.

Ultimately, Dr. Thackery is just another man playing his part in a noteworthy time in history. The Knick knows this. So, why don’t you?

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