The Knick, Season 1, Episode 1: “Method and Madness”
Written by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Airs Fridays on Cinemax at 8PM EST on Cinemax
It’s sometimes remarkable to note how much the world has changed in just the last century alone. In a first-world society where technological advances often occur yearly, if not monthly, it’s easy to forget that our progenitors of a mere two or three generations lived in a reality very much different than our own.
The Knick is another in the recent trend of gritty period pieces intent on reminding us of this simple, yet easily forgettable, fact of life. Very much in the tradition of shows like Boardwalk Empire, Cinemax’s new series wishes to take us back to a time that most of us know very little about, but rather on a smaller scale, vying for the world of medical experimentation and advancement rather than bootlegging gangsters.
Which is not to say that The Knick is lacking in its depictions of social disparity and the cultural climate of the time; on the contrary. In fact, given time, this might grow to be its greatest strength. Free of a world filled with high-flying freewheelers and violent degenerates, The Knick is poised to explore a more relatable, down-to-earth setting.
Set in 1900, The Knick is a medical drama that intends to subvert the squeaky clean soap operas that the genre is generally associated with, such as ER, Chicago Hope, and, more recently, Gray’s Anatomy. For, indeed this was a much different time, and in the first episode alone, the issues explored include suicide, drug abuse, immigration, and race relations.
Centering around New York’s venerable Knickerbocker Hospital, The Knick sets its focus on surgeon Dr. John Thackery, portrayed by the inimitable Clive Owen. Thackery is, or course, an expert at what he does, and unsurprisingly, a scoundrel of the highest order. Being an antihero with great skill in his profession and a substance abuser, it’s hard for seasoned viewers not to see the tropes of recent television dramas coming into play once again. On the other hand, Thackery is an interesting character, and as the central focus of the show he still has plenty of room to grow. Other characters introduced in the pilot episode include an expert doctor who happens to be a “negro” by the parlance of the times, a mousy nurse, a wealthy benefactor, and a crude ambulance driver.
Surprisingly, in a show that is seemingly character-charged, it’s the surgical scenes that pack the most punch. Take the opening scene where Thackery and his mentor operate on a pregnant woman in an operating theater. The woman tearfully begs them to save her baby, and yet during the entire gruesome surgery, hope simply drips away like the lifeblood of the woman, or the heart beat of her newborn babe. Neither survive.
Conversely, in the episode’s final moments, a man is saved from death by similarly unconventional means, setting the stage for a lot of moral and intellectual exploration of the issues at hand. Before attempting the latter procedure, Thackery laments the life of the Labrador retriever he previously attempted the method on in audible proximity to the patient he’s about to operate on. “There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t miss that dog.”
Yeesh, talk about a bedside manner.
Ultimately the series premiere of The Knick is more about setting the table than about putting fork to plate. “Method and Madness” doesn’t set the bar too high, but it is certainly a promising start for what looks to be a promising series. It only needs time to grow, or perhaps, the word “gestate” would be more appropriate.