Plot: It’s the year 1900 and cocaine-addled Dr. John W. Thackery (Clive Owen) becomes the head doctor at The Knickerbocker Hospital (aka The Knick) in New York City. Thackery must battle his personal demons while trying to navigate his way through the political ins and outs of the hospital including the addition of an African-American doctor Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), which he vehemently opposes, all while trying to take medicine into a new age.
On paper, The Knick should not work. A turn-of-the-century medical drama premiering on a usually dead television night in the middle of the summer on a channel that’s known for its late night skin flicks. So much of that sentence seems completely illogical and it seems like a show that’s doomed for failure.
And if that’s your thought process tonight as you surf your endless sea of channels or are setting your DVR before you head out for the evening, you’re making one of the biggest pop culture mistakes of 2014.
The Knick is absolutely fantastic.
There’s two reasons why this show works — Clive Owen and Steven Soderbergh.
Owen, is probably one of the more criminally underrated actors out there. After his impressive run in Closer, Sin City and Children of Men, Owen was in a lot of loud and lousy action flicks that did nothing to show his versatility as an actor and in many ways made the general populace forget that this man is brilliant. In The Knick, he owns every single moment he’s onscreen as the drug addicted John Thackery. He delivers this Jekyll and Hyde performance of a man who’s a seemingly cool, calm and collected genius of surgeon but in reality is a tortured, weak and fragile man searching for truth. Every moment of Owen on screen just screams, “And the Emmy goes to…” it’s just that good.
Yet, this isn’t the Clive Owen show because like a good quarterback, he’s able to make his entire team better because of his performance. He elevates everyone onscreen with him, especially Eve Hewson (aka Bono’s daughter) who plays the innocent and reserved young nurse Lucy Elkins. Hewson’s performance is fine throughout the series, but when she’s with Owen, she just gets exponentially better.
The same can be said for Andre Holland who has some painfully intense scenes with Owen. While the word “painful” might make you think the scenes were bad, let’s clarify — watching Owen’s Thackery openly state his dislike of Holland’s Dr. Edwards only because of the color of his skin — is flat out unsettling to watch and it’s supposed to be.
Yet, The Knick just isn’t some well-acted period piece, it has a dazzling visual landscape created by Steven Soderbergh. Most historical pieces wouldn’t go for unique camera work, rich color palettes or even attempt to recreate what an opium haze would look like from a character’s point of view. But Soderbergh goes for it and it pays off marvelously. He’s also able to direct the series in a way that makes you feel like this is a Masterpiece Theater-style series with an auteur’s stamp on it. It has this sense of sophistication to it, but it’s not afraid to get creative and frankly, bloody as hell.
The Knick premieres tonight on Cinemax and truth be told, the pilot episode isn’t a home run, but it piques your interest. You want to know more and you want to see where things go. When you allow that to happen, you’re going to discover one of the finer shows airing on television right now.
The Knick airs tonight on Cinemax at 10pm.
Bill Bodkin is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Pop-Break. He can be read weekly on Trailer Tuesday and Singles Party, weekly reviews on Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Hannibal, Law & Order: SVU and regular contributions throughout the week with reviews and interviews. His goal is to write 500 stories this year. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English and currently works in the world of political polling. He’s the reason there’s so much wrestling on the site and is beyond excited to be a Dad this coming December. Follow him on Twitter: @PopBreakDotCom