I can’t tell if Cinemax is staffed by idiots or geniuses. Their new prestige series, The Knick, is airing on Fridays. Fridays! The widely accepted graveyard for broadcast television. The only thing worse is (shudder) Saturday. Ever since the days of The Sopranos, Sunday has been the day for high concept cable drama. Perhaps HBO, the more popular parent company to Cinemax, doesn’t want to canibalize it’s own end-of-weekend cash cow. It does however leave one wondering if anyone is watching The Knick. Certainly not on Friday.
Maybe the question ought to be “should anyone watch The Knick.” I’m still trying to answer that question for myself. The show, about two pioneering surgeons in 1900 New York City, seems to struggle to find much purpose outside of being a directing excursion for Steven Soderbergh and an opportunity to show extreme gore. Last week’s episode showed us the monsters inside Drs. John Thackery (Clive Owen) and Algernon Edwards (a controversially African American surgeon played by Andre Holland). The new episode, “The Busy Flea,” goes to great lengths to continue to show just how similar this mismatched pair truly is. Particularly in their mad scientist-esque techniques. Thack is on the cutting edge (that’s a pun) of surgical innovation, while Algernon is dancing around progressive ideas like equal access to health care.
The two men are growing apart in their depths, which are slowly being exposed. They are moving in opposite directions. Algernon has secretly taken on the task of opening an after hours clinic for black patients in need, even performing (literally) underground surgeries. It is hard to say whether Algernon is doing this because someone must, or to prove that he can be helpful in the wake of being entirely ignored by his white peers. Either way, when he realizes the cost of his pride and hubris, we see the darkness begin to engulf him.
Thack, on the other hand, is edging ever closer to humanity. “The Busy Flea” unloads a healthy amount of exposition regarding many of the characters, including a glimpse into Thack’s romantic backstory (or Thackstory). When asked by a former lover to perform a cosmetic surgery on her syphilis-ravaged nose, we see a kind side of Thack that has not been present at all up to this point. Thackery’s instance of faux humility in the previous episode with Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) was entirely self-serving, but Thack gains nothing from being pleasant toward a woman who once jilted him.
This character shift is actually one of the aspects of the episode that doesn’t really work. It comes out of nowhere, and a last minute pep-talk from Lucy drives Thack even further toward the side of the white-hats. It feels like lazy writing by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, solely designed to increase the juxtaposition between Thack and Algernon. And the lazy writing doesn’t stop there. The writers continue to put hospital manager Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) in dangerous financial situations that make us worry about or feel bad for him, but they have never actually given the viewer a reason to care about the character – who is mostly drawn and irresponsible and greedy.
Luckily Soderbergh is around to elevate the material. Soderbergh serves as both cinematographer and editor on this project, as he is wont to do, and his efforts don’t go unnoticed. His camera work helps put us in the characters’ perspectives, whether it be Thack’s shaky longing for more cocaine or Algernon’s alcohol-fueled rage at the episode’s conclusion. Soderbergh’s disregard for structure in his editing is also a refreshing touch; main characters appear only when appropriate. If that means most of the cast doesn’t appear until the halfway mark of the episode, so be it.
The jury is still out on whether or not The Knick is essential entertainment, but at least it’s educational. For instance, did you know at one point a crazy disease like syphilis could actually make your nose fall off? That’s the kind of stuff Noah Wyle never taught me on ER. As its more serialized aspects begin to take prominence, I’ll continue to give The Knick my attention. At least it’s more exciting than most of True Detective.