The modern landscape for cable television in America is full to the brim with adult content. Thanks to shows like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Fargo, True Detective and even going back a few years with Deadwood and Nip/Tuck, we’re in an age where the envelope for violence, gore and sexual content has been pushed pretty goddamn far. The Knick is a new turn of the century hospital drama from Stephen Sodenbergh that immerses the viewer in the gruesome world of experimental surgery in 1900. The pilot episode has a bloody operation on a pregnant woman, an onscreen suicide, a Chinatown brothel and a cocaine addict injecting a needle into the shaft of his penis. Ten years ago I think this episode would have caused a stir and turned heads for its content. In today’s television climate, it has barely registered on the pop culture landscape and instead you might be left wondering ‘what else ya got, Sodenbergh?’
Season 1, Pilot
“Method and Madness”
Like Fargo, there’s reason for cautious optimism. Stephen Sodenbergh has had a storied career as a film director and a creative drive that has seen him dabble in all sorts of genres and styles. For a guy that ‘retired’ not too long ago, its amazing to see his output here. The first season of The Knick is already in the can and Sodenbergh has directed all ten episodes. That’s a hell of a way to keep busy in retirement.
The show stars Clive Owen, a reliably great actor who I feel never does as much high profile work as he could or should. Owen plays Doctor John Thackery, a vain but brilliant surgeon who leads his field in experimental surgery but has an abrasive personality and a crippling drug addiction. Victorian-era House in other words.
Thackery is unexpectedly promoted to head surgeon at the Knickerbocker Hospital when his mentor Dr Christianson kills himself after he loses his tenth consecutive patient. Thackery is very direct in his approach and doesn’t suffer fools gladly as we see in an early scene when he scolds Nurse Elkins for her sloppy work tending to the stiches of a patient. His social politics are put to the test in his new role when he finds himself reporting to a woman – Cornelia Robertson – the daughter of the man who keeps the hospital funded. Robertson hires a black surgeon Algernon Edwards who Thackery flatly refuses to work with, claiming that the colour of his skin will turn away prospective patients.
We don’t really get the full measure of Thackery’s character in the pilot. Is he pragmatic or is he a bigot? Likely, he is both. The show gets the ball rolling on a number of interesting sub plots including a chain smoking nun Sister Harriet who draws the attention of the ambulance driver Mr Clearly. There’s also a corrupt health inspector named Speight who intercepts sick and dying immigrants in the slums of New York in return for cash payment from the hospital.
The Knick has the potential to be a creative and thought provoking show that transcends the hospital procedural trappings that it inhibits. The presence of Clive Owen and Stephen Sodenbergh give the show plenty of potential. Alternatively it might simply end up as a run-of-the-mill hospital drama updated for today’s audiences by including the prerequisite shock value content that brings it in line with its contemporaries. We shall see.