Further notes on The Knick

Steven Soderbergh’s vigorous Victorian-era medical series marries the vogue for graphic-novel stylings with the perverse pleasures of peering at vintage medical books.

Nick James
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The Knick (2014)

The Knick (2014)

We’ve already published an elegantly succinct article by Peter Labuza on what’s great about The Knick, the new US series set in the notorious Knickerbocker hospital in the Lower East Side of New York in the year 1900, and what Steven Soderbergh brings to what might otherwise be a more routine late Victorian period hospital drama. I’m adding some extra notes.

It looks to me as if, for instance, Soderbergh and the show’s creators Jack Amiel, Michael Begler and Steven Katz have watched the sometimes (but often not) brilliant UK series Ripper Street, in that the four episodes of The Knick that I’ve seen borrow quite a lot of that show’s graphic-novel élan in its depictions of early 20th century vices and iniquities – especially its mood of unforgiving anti-romanticism.

Given the transatlantic shift of the brilliant, graphic novel-inspired Utopia from Channel 4 to a David Fincher-directed, Gillian Fox-scripted US version, you might think this is part of a pattern. If so much of cinema is out to gratify pre-teen superhero tastes, then television drama likewise seems keen to learn a thing or two from moody graphic images, parsimonious speech-bubble dialogue and heavy-ink chiaroscuro, with early ventures in the UK being amplified in the US.

The Knick (2014)

The Knick (2014)

The Knick, however, is a more adult experience than the above sketch allows, riven with a bitter asperity, even if the ever more saturnine Clive Owen makes me think all the time that his John W. Thackery is a split-personality conception that might be retitled Dr. Frankenstein and Mr. Holmes.

Being a perhaps pedantic sort of telly watcher, I get bothered by the boundaries of plausibility so that, for instance, I can’t ever watch Homeland without shrieking “But no government spook would ever be that stupid!” at least three times an episode.

With The Knick I’m more forgiving when it happens that Thackery and his colleagues come close to perfecting the C-section, invent the epidural and vacuum blood suction, have someone on hand in African-American Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) who knows the new French method for dealing with aneurisms and fiddle about with the possibility of heart massage, all in those first four episodes. Whew!

The Knick (2014)

The Knick (2014)

If you think that’s plenty, what the nun Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) gets up to and the corpse-chasing ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) knows about, what the friends of the High Society patrons Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) and her shipping tycoon father Captain August Robinson (Grainger Hines) are capable of, and what the shunned genius Dr. Edwards thinks he can get away with in the hospital cellar – not to mention a brief lecture on electricity from Thomas Edison – all add up to a crammed feeling of tremendously high ambition and not a little potential hubris. These people are not risk-averse, yet Soderbergh and co. reflect a better balance of urgency, conscience and matter-of-factness than do routine hospital soaps.

I would be more bored that Thackery spends all his leisure hours in an opium den – the 1900 equivalent of having him go skateboarding with the rent boys (he’s also a cocaine addict) – were it not that Soderbergh, in shooting and editing the whole thing himself, does such a great job of making the den look so much like a reflection in a gas lamp.

Why I’m sure that The Knick works is that I have a favourite character. He is Sullivan’s Tom Cleary, the belligerent, chivvying Irish ambulance driver, always on the make, fighting other ambulances for accident victims, keeping an eye on Sister Harriet, making hospital manager Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) – the most annoyingly implausible character – pay through the nose. It is Cleary who tells you the score in fin de siècle New York: that immigrants come believing the promises but far too many do not survive the realities long.

The Knick (2014)

The Knick (2014)

The Knick is on the grim side of binge telly-drama experiences, and at its weakest when Soderbergh’s incredibly deft marshalling of image and movement comes to a rest point and the occasional banality of series melodrama gets laid bare. But most of the time the series relishes in the same kind of perverse, alarming pleasure that looking through vintage medical books gives one – there are even self-mocking scenes where doctors’ stooges thieving medical books from another hospital marvel and hoot at pictures of elephantiasis.

There’s also the joy, of course, of seeing Soderbergh’s camerawork, like the bravura moment when, with a few pans and electrifying shifts of focus he captures nearly all the various factions and characters arriving for work in one take. It’s sometimes as breathtaking when it’s ordinary as when it’s bloody.

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