“The Knick” is an edgy modern take on a medical drama set in New York City in the 1900’s
I didn’t really want to watch The Knick. My wife and I are serial Netflix series binge-watchers (addicts if you will). We find ourselves watching anything that receives critic accolades and we can get our hands on. So when I read the synopsis of The Knick while flicking through Netflix, I wasn’t enthusiastic about watching it. I’m not huge fans of period pieces (let alone medical drama’s) but the show has received critic mentions so I thought it would be (at least) worth giving it the “let’s watch the first episode” try.
Everything about the show has been a pleasant surprise, I was instantly hooked. For a period piece, it’s strikingly contemporary — and quite gory, although the surgery scenes never feel without reason. It’s not for the faint of heart. Even though the show takes place in turn-of-the-century New York City, it feels as new as any other new show that’s available for streaming.
A Good Opener Goes a Long Way
The show is executed stylishly well. Episode 1 opens with Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen), the protagonist, choosing to take the long way to work so he can buy himself the time to shoot up with liquid cocaine between his toes in a taxi. This quickly reveals the protagonist and the overall mood of the show. It’s dark, it’s not your mom’s “General Hospital”-like medical drama. This is a story about a great man that does bad things.
The Origin of Modern Medicine
As the series tagline states “modern medicine had to start somewhere”, the main character, Dr. John W. “Thack” Thackery is the chief surgeon at the Knickerbocker Hospital. Thackeray is loosely based on the real-life Doctor William Stewart Halsted. William Stewart Halsted was one of the “Big Four” founding professors at the John Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, and was known to struggle with cocaine and morphine addiction throughout his career.
Scenes where Thackery shoots up immediately before surgery feel like your watching a slow moving train wreck — it’s hard to turn your eyes away from watching. Seeing how surgery was performed and the instruments used to do them at that time was even more disturbing. In the 19th and early 20th centuries many procedures took place in large, open-air operating theaters filled with no barrier between the patient and spectators. Brass hand-cranked suction devices to remove blood, and inhaled anesthesia were also common practice at the time.
The surgery scenes are gory. The show is not shy about showing organs and blood. At times it’s tough to stomach these scenes. Watching the doctors attempting to perform them feels more like a twisted medical experiment than a tried and true solution to their patients ailment. These scenes have given me a newfound appreciation for the medical advancements that have been made since the 1900’s. The medical profession has come a long way to become as advanced as it is today.
Brillant Minimalist Electronic Music Score
“The Knick” has a brilliant and minimalist electronic music score. The sonic landscape is dark and cold. Analog synths pulse like heartbeats — making it feel more like music created by Trent Reznor for Social Network than a 1900’s medical drama.
Race Relations in the 1900’s
Casual racism is always apparent in the show, and at times, it’s hard to watch. The show is full of ethnic bigotry, but this is necessary to drive home the views that the majority of society had at that time. There is a distinct divide between the lives of the white people and the lives of the black people in the show.
Dr. Algernon Edwards is a Harvard-educated black surgeon, who is constantly discriminated against by his white peers (despite being the most talented surgeon of his group) he is able to come-up among the ranks of other white surgeons on the staff. Thankfully, Edwards is not portrayed as being “saintly” (all of the time) — which seems to be a typical Hollywood cliche for black characters in similar roles. Rather, he comes across as human (i.e. flawed) with idiosyncrasies and breakdown moments that makes his character even more identifiable and likable. Edwards is a unique character in that he doesn’t quite fit in with either groups — the blacks or whites. He’s too polished and well traveled to be accepted by the blacks, and he struggles for respect from his white peers because he’s black. So, he is a character that has no other option then to constantly be fighting to swim against all the odds presented to him. Interestingly, his character is becomes the voice of sanity opposite to Thackery’s instability.
Steven Soderbergh is a master of his craft!
The show was created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, but it’s Steven Soderbergh’s vision. Soderbergh is an Atlanta born director whose directed films like Side Effects, Contagion and Traffic (to name a few). If you haven’t seen these movies, I highly recommend watching them. Soderbergh tends to wear many hats while on “The Knick”, in addition to directing, he’s also the DP and editor for the show.
The show is visually gorgeous, and is shot beautifully. Soderbergh is a master at his craft. He uses hand held camera shots tastefully to help sell the uneasiness during certain situations. The choice of lighting is dark and natural — these are techniques that make the show feel contemporary with others popular Netflix/HBO series out now.
The Knick is not a dull 1900’s medical drama, its a twist on the genre. It’s packed with enough style and edge to keep you engaged throughout the whole experience. I recommend that you go watch the series (and let me know what you think once you do). It’s painfully addictive!
The Knick is currently streamable via HBOgo, HBOnow, and MaxGo.