UK VOD TV review: The Knick Episode 1 (Method and Madness) – spoiler-free
Philip W Bayles | On 16, Oct 2014
Just as Netflix brought in David Fincher to kick-start House of Cards, now Cinemax brings another acclaimed director – Steven Soderbergh – to oversee their new original series, The Knick. And, just as Fincher and Frank Underwood were a match made in heaven, so too does Soderbergh prove the perfect fit for this fascinating, if a little too slowly burning, series about medicine at the turn of the 20th century.
The Knickerbocker Memorial Hospital of New York (which gives the show its name) may sound like a fun place, but it’s a world away from the likes of Seattle Grace or Sacred Heart. Here, you’ll find no steamy office romances (at least not yet) or hilarious non-sequitur daydreams. And yet, in a kind of weird parallel to Soderbergh’s own Behind the Candelabra, there’s a theatricality to what goes on. Seeing the doctors in their crisp white uniforms operating in front of a room of serious faces staring down from the bleachers, it’s hard not to think of performers working on a metaphorical high wire. And, as is often the case, it’s when the performers slip that the show becomes most interesting.
Following a botched medical procedure and the suicide of his mentor Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer), Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) finds himself appointed chief of surgery and immediately thrust into the murky world of hospital politics. The Knick is $30,000 in debt, and its wealthy benefactor Miss Robertson (Juliet Rylance) demands that Thackery hire a well-qualified doctor, who just happens to be black; something that Thackery strongly objects to on the (perhaps understandable) grounds that surgical skill serves little use, if nobody wants you to operate on them.
From the opening shots, as we see Thackery reclining in an opium den, or injecting cocaine between his toes on the way to the hospital before emerging, as lively as you please, into the operating room, Clive Owen’s performance remains utterly fascinating, an intimate examination of the hypocrisy of those in positions of high esteem. He’s a smug and self-important bastard with a Swiftian jibe for every occasion, even going so far as hijacking his colleague’s eulogy to espouse the wonders of modern medicine. But his idolisation of progress has its limits. “You can only join the circus if the circus wants you,” he sneers at Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) on their first meeting, held, somewhat symbolically, in the hospital basement as a black worker shovels the morning coal delivery.
Over the course of the first episode, we see a huge and varied cross-section of life in turn-of-the-century New York, from the doctors and nurses of the Knick and the corrupt health inspectors to the Irish ambulance drivers who race around the city and fight (sometimes literally) to bring patients back to their respective hospitals. If it’s too brisk to offer any kind of emotional depth, it’s still satisfying, and one hopes that we’ll get the chance to see some more of these people in greater detail as the series progresses.
But if the characters don’t exactly get your heart racing, the insane amount of gore will. Soderbergh has wisely ignored the convention of more tasteful medical dramas, which look away when things get too icky; throughout, the camera lingers voyeuristically on weeping wounds, jagged scars and thick, red blood pumped into glass jars. This is not a series for the faint-hearted.
The first episode of The Knick may not be the most attention-grabbing piece of television in recent years, but it’s quietly intriguing in its own disgusting way. Those with a stomach for the surgical procedures will find a fascinating drama that promises to become something special.
All episodes of The Knick Season 1 are available to watch online on Sky On Demand – or on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. Season 2 starts on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday 12th January.