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The Knick S01E01: "Method and Madness"

For your listening pleasure, here's a track from the score of The Knick:


After watching The Knick's first episode, I felt compelled to kiss my calendar as a thank-you for living in today's modern world. The medical procedure that opened "Method and Madness" served not only as a gut test for viewers—if you can make it past the excruciatingly tense and bloody failed delivery of a premature baby, then you'll be able to watch The Knick with only mild bile interruptions—but as a worn and weathered bookmark for modern medicine. This is how things used to be, and The Knick makes no attempt to romanticize that.

"It seems we are still lacking," Dr. J.M. Christenson (an unrecognizable, beard-dunking Matt Frewer) said to the throngs of onlookers who'd observed the punishing operation that resulted in a dead mother and a dead unborn baby. "I hope, if nothing else, this has been instructive for you all." Then the guy shot himself, because he hadn't been able to pioneer a procedure that would keep such patients alive—in fact, he'd watched more than a dozen women, plus their preemies, die by his hands. 

But The Knick is much more than a show about the crushing defeats that surgeons once faced as they attempted to cheat God's intentions. Set in the 1900s at the world-famous Knickerbocker Hospital (a.k.a. "the Knick") in New York City, the series is ostensibly a period piece detailing the burgeoning era of then-modern medicine as doctors tried to understand the many mysteries of the human body. I mean, there are funny old-timey hats, the characters look like they're dressed for a dinner party at all times, and there are piles of horse poop in the streets. But in the hands of director and executive producer Steven Soderbergh (who's known around the Oscars as the man behind such modern classics as Traffic and Erin Brokovich, the blockbuster franchise Ocean's Eleven, and dazzling art films like Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Solaris, and The Limey), The Knick operates independent of time, pulling viewers out of the mindset of watching historical fiction as they witness the advent of change. 

It's no mistake that Cliff Martinez's anachronistic score is brimming with the pulsing keyboards and throbbing digi-sounds that are typically better suited for science-fiction fare, because to these dapper-dressed citizens of New York City, what Dr. John Thackery (a perfectly mustachioed Clive Owen) is doing with a scalpel and some stitches may as well be straight out of the works of H.G Wells. 

"We now live in a time of endless possibility," a hopeful and confident Thackery said of an era where people older than 25 was well past middle age and hospital patients were dying of diseases that we 2014ers knock out with a capful of syrup. And that's what makes The Knick less about the early 20th century and more about the universal challenges of launching full-force into the unknown, with zero hesitation. The show may be set against a backdrop of the medical challenges that arise from working with limited electricity and hand-crank instruments, but the message is all about pioneering and vision, and that's a story that can be fascinating no matter when it takes place. (AMC recently tried something similar with Halt and Catch Fire, which centered on the computer revolution of the 1980s, but there's something more potent about seeing patients die on the operating table than there is about a computerbox not working or a processor not reaching desired speeds.)  

Of course, it's Soderbergh's creative vision that really makes The Knick groundbreaking, or at least makes it stand out among the rash of period dramas that's currently taking television by storm. Admittedly, I would watch Soderbergh direct people to the bathroom, and he employs all his signature techniques in The Knick—voyeuristic framing, shaky camerawork, limited light, distinct color palettes, maximizing his actors' potential—instead of bowing to the typically straightforward approach of most historical fiction, which often lets the costuming, hokey accents, and dull music do most of the storytelling. The result is magical; The Knick screams off the screen and moves at a pace rarely associated with shows set before film was even invented. Thanks to its whirling cameras and a feeling of constant motion, The Knick would make Downton Abbey's Lord Grantham to spit out his tea and leave the Dowager Countess's knickers in a bunch. Just as the eye of True Detective director Cary Fukunaga was vital to that show's essence, Soderbergh's eye is vital to The Knick—probably even more so. 


Adding another head to The Knick's powerful hydra is the series' incredible cast of characters. Clive Owen is commanding as Dr. Thackery, a stubborn genius who's teetering on the brink of assholism but doesn't go quite far enough to make us hate him. He's brilliant, but haunted by his inability to conquer nature's way, plus he's dealing with a crippling—yet invigorating!—addiction to cocaine and heroin. In fact, it's so crippling that he had cocaine injected into his dick. Into his dick! This is the man who is going to revolutionize surgery, and he might be performing miracles while whacked out on the Devil's Dandruff. Eesh! I cracked up after he got his dick-jection and was practically skipping into the surgery where the patient needed his bowels shortened. And that's another thing about The Knick: The show is surprisingly funny, mostly due to Thackery's inappropriate wit ("You will have the honor of evacuating your bowels several seconds faster than any of your friends," he said while removing several inches of someone's intestine), the brutish ambulance driver Tom, and the insult-ready nun Sister Harriet. 

And then there's Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland, who was the best part of 1600 Penn). Edwards is the African-American doctor who's trying to become the Assistant Chief at the Knick. His role in the show will no doubt spur the social debate of the time period, but what I really liked about his character in Episode 1 was that he decided to remain on the staff. I'm sure I'm wasn't alone in expecting Dr. Algernon to step up and show his skills during that final surgery, in order to prove to Thackery that he belonged there and win one for the little guys. But instead, he saw Thackery's talent and decided not to resign even though he wasn't welcome, choosing to stay on and learn from Thackery's great intelligence. Edwards' time will come, but for now, the character will be even more successful as as the distraction Thackery can't get rid of (because the administration hired him) instead of the guy who's always trying to prove himself. 

When every facet of a television series is running smoothly, the result is a show like The Knick. It's gross and engrossing, historical but also groundbreaking, and beautiful in its brutality. The Knick is more than just a drama about the trials and tribulations of early surgeons, it's a work of art and an impressive step forward for a medium that continues to evolve.  


NOTES

– That final scene with Thackery—in which he performed a little miracle of medicine and then headed to his Opium den for a refill as the lights came on at the hospital—was amazing. It's the dawn of a new era! But first let me get high off my face.

– Jeremy Bobb, last seen in CBS's loathsome Hostages and Netflix's overrated House of Cards, may have found his breakout role as Knick administrator (at least I think that's his position) Herman Barrow. He's fantastic.

– That's Bono's daughter Eve Hewson as Nurse Lucy.  

– The Knick might be the best new show of the summer, but because it's on Cinemax, I have no idea whether it will get the eyeballs it deserves. However, the network seems confident that the series will expand the Cinemax reputation beyond "the home of action both in and out of the bedroom," and has already ordered a second season

– I suppose we should talk about the "gore," eh? Is it really gore? Or is it simply an honest depiction of what surgery was like in those days? I actually wasn't as bothered by it as much as I thought I would be, but after that first failed C-section, I was emotionally crushed—it was devastating to see. However, by the time we reached the second surgery at the end of the episode, I was eating lasagna while watching like it was no problem. What about you? 

– One great thing about the blood was the way the show handled it. Instead of using beeping machines to throw out numbers that mean nothing to most viewers, "Method and Madness" was full of visual cues. For example, during the C-section surgery, the blood that was collected (presumably to be transfused back in?) wasn't measured in CCs or milliliters, but in jars. When those three jars were rolled out, I never expected all of them to be FILLED WITH BLOOD. But they filled up pretty quickly, and suddenly things got serious. On modern medical shows, quantifying that kind of blood loss is difficult but here, it's pretty easy. And effective.


Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 10/17/2014

Season 1 : Episode 10

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