“The Knick” represents a creative stretch for Cinemax, which has thus far confined its original-series efforts largely to a boobs-and-bullets niche intended to resemble the kind of movies this HBO satellite regularly features. Yet while it’s easy to understand the channel’s attraction to the marquee pairing of Clive Owen and director Steven Soderbergh, it’s harder to fathom what drew them to a brooding, blood-stained drama set in a New York hospital, circa 1900. Yes, the barbaric nature of medicine — evolving though it was — remains grisly stuff, but once that point’s made (and made again), it’s tough to see what breakthroughs “The Knick” has left to offer.
Owen plays John Thackery, a brilliant and innovative surgeon who, along with his mentor Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer), chafes at the high mortality rates at the hospital (from whence the series derives its name). Yet if Christiansen finds his own escape, Thackery takes refuge in narcotics, hiding his habit by shooting the stuff into his toes.
An opening on the hospital staff, meanwhile, leads the progressive administrators to push Thackery to hire Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), an African-American doctor who has been plying his trade in Europe. At first, Thackery steadfastly resists, harboring no interest in either breaking the color barrier or in employing a physician he’s convinced most of his patients will be reluctant to see.
Edwards chafes against the prejudice, but can’t help but be impressed by Thackery’s boundary-pushing innovations, which include attempting to devise a new method of trying to save the infant and mother in the case of a distressed birth.
Certainly, it’s interesting to see this period portrayed without a Victorian love story or Jack the Ripper in it, and Owen brings considerable intensity to the role of yet another TV doctor raiding his own medicine cabinet. There’s also some striking imagery in the surgical theater in which Thackery demonstrates procedures, or in the opium den where we first meet him; and the strange spectacle of ambulances employing cutthroat tactics to land and deliver well-heeled patients to medical facilities.
Written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, the entire run of the series was directed by Soderbergh — a departure from those feature directors who kick off a show and then move on. The resulting episodes, however, are a bit like an impressionistic painting: intriguing to look at, perhaps, but not always clear in conveying what the actual intent is. And while the characters and their relationships do progress, for the most part those arcs develop along assiduous and fairly predictable lines.
The question for Cinemax, which has sought to differentiate itself from HBO by being the Walmart to its Bloomingdales, concerns its long-term plan for the show. The channel clearly elevates its ambitions here, but with a project seemingly more deficient in commercial appeal, barring the auspices and lead, than even the toniest premium platforms would dare.
Healthcare, obviously, remains much in the news, and the series is notable for capturing how far we’ve come in little more than a century from what looks like the Dark Ages. That said, there’s simply not much at “The Knick” to justify the visit, even if someone else is springing for the co-payment.