Steven Soderbergh famously retired from filmmaking after his 2013 film Side Effects. In the time since that announcement Soderbergh directed Behind the Candelabra, a highly-acclaimed HBO-released feature based on the life of Liberace. And now, in August, Cinemax will be airing The Knick, a 10-part series about turn-of-the-century medicine starring Clive Owen. Soderbergh directed each of the ten episodes in a process not unlike that of a 10 hour film. It seems Soderbergh just can’t stay away from the filmed medium – indeed, he has recently taken to referring to his “retirement” as more of a “sabbatical.” This is good news for fans of cinema, but there is always the chance that The Knick may be the last we get from the prolific director.
I had an opportunity to see a sneak peek of the first episode of The Knick at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a part of Film Independent. The pilot episode, written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (known mostly for family fare like Raising Helen and Big Miracle), follows Dr. John Thackery (Owen), the deputy chief of surgery at The Knickerbocker hospital in Manhattan in the year 1900. At the turn of the 20th century, surgery was the final frontier, and Thackery – along with his mentor and friend Dr. Christenson (Matt Frewer) – is one of the brave pioneers of the field. He is also a bit of an ass, with a bit of a drug problem. Okay, he’s kind of just House with a mustache.
Clearly the tortured doctor is well-worn territory at this point. Owen plays it well enough here, but so far he isn’t bringing anything new to the role. He’s self-congratulatory, but it’s deserved. He’s prejudiced, but only because it’s practical. He’s the perfect curmudgeon in every way. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it won’t help the show stand out too much in a television landscape where seemingly every main character is morally handicapped.
Luckily Amiel and Begler have done a lot of work to make the show unique. The medical procedural is not a new genre. And its reputation is strong; shows like ER and Scrubs had me convinced for a long time that I was going to grow up to be a doctor (my father still holds out hope – you never know, I guess). The creators of The Knick have done a metric ton of research to craft a feasible medical universe in such an antiquated time. Everything is horses and hand-cranks, and it’s awesome. This is an era where the medical technology we now take for granted is just being conceived, and Amiel and Begler put that feeling in every page of the pilot.
It’s a really great concept with a lot of possibilities, but the actual nitty-gritty aspects of the script could use some work. There are introductory scenes throughout the episode that drag, but this is to be expected in a pilot. Unfortunately the dialogue in these scenes drags as well. At least that seems to be the problem. Some characters – particularly one of the hospital’s benefactors, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), and a newly hired black surgeon, Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) – often speak unbelievably stilted sentences that aren’t aided in anyway by somewhat wooden performances by the actors. If it is a script problem then I have faith in the team to bring the quality up in subsequent episodes. But an acting issue may not be so easily salvageable.
The Knick was shot like an extra-long feature – out of sequence and everything. This means that all of the scenes that occur in Thackery’s apartment were shot at roughly the same time. Likewise with all of the scenes in the operating theater. So if an actor is having difficulty with their character, that issue may not necessarily resolve itself over time. In fact, it may result in uneven performances across the entire series.
But that is a completely unfair factor by which to judge this single episode of television. It does speak to The Knick‘s greatest asset: Soderbergh. He’s the reason we’re all here right? I love the shift we’re witnessing from prestige television to cinematic television events, à la True Detective (which I appreciate despite not loving) or Fargo (which I will absolutely finish sometime soon). It’s the kind of thing Bergman and Fassbinder were doing in the 70’s and 80’s, and I’m overjoyed that it’s starting to become popular now in the States. Soderbergh bringsfamiliar trappings of his style to The Knick (including his talents as cinematographer and editor, as usual), producing a fast-paced product that holds your interest, even when the script doesn’t exactly demand it.
The big set pieces of the episode (and presumably the series as a whole) are the surgery scenes. They are intimate, detailed, and extremely graphic. These scenes receive the most care from Soderbergh’s hand; the handheld camera is at its steadiest in these moments. When Thackery slices open (and plunges his gloveless hands into) a pregnant woman’s belly in the first five minutes of the episode, we see every gory detail. It may turn off some viewers (as it clearly did for a majority of the audience at the screening this evening), but this incredibly visceral aspect of the series adds to the Wild West quality of the operating room.
The pilot of The Knick leaves me very intrigued – I am not looking forward to the month-long wait I must now endure. The combination of an untapped time period (a rarity in today’s series television) and an exciting filmmaker who often embraces stories of inequality and race and gender is an exciting one. I’m not sure what to expect moving forward, but for now I am decidedly on board.
The Knick premieres August 8th at 10 pm on Cinemax.