By Ethan Sapienza
As the camera cuts in to a close up of a pregnant woman’s stomach, Dr. Jules Christiansen’s bare hand, wielding a knife, presses against the exposed skin and makes an incision. Blood begins to ooze out and seep into his fingernails, where minor remnants of dirt remain. The camera cuts, revealing the blood being sucked up and pumped into jars. The surgery commences, attempting to remove the unborn baby. More jars are filled, as more bare hands wielding instruments enter into the body cavity, desperately searching to save the baby, racing against time as more and more jars are needed.
This tense, short surgery begins Cinemax’s new show, “The Knick,” in appropriate fashion, showing off its best attribute: the up close and horrifying medical procedures of yesteryear. The show is set during the beginning of the 20th century, following the often gruesome challenges facing the doctors, nurses and other personnel at the Knickerbocker hospital in lower Manhattan. After the aforementioned surgery fails, Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer) walks into his office and puts a bullet into his brain. Thus begins the tenure of Christiansen’s understudy, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), as head of surgery at the Knick.
The show progresses from there, consisting of a cast that provides solid performances, though often relying too much on stereotypically conservative portrayals. Andre Holland plays Dr. Algernon Edwards, a remarkably gifted surgeon whose skin color prevents him from being accepted at the hospital. Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) is a fresh-faced southern girl, though her innocence is undermined by clear sexual tension with Thackery. Juliet Rylance is Cornelia Robertson, the daughter of the shipping tycoon who finances the Knick, who also has her own carnal chemistry with Edwards. And Jeremy Bobb portrays the slimy hospital manager, Herman Barrow, whose debt to unsavory types provides one of the more interesting subplots.
Most of the show doesn’t necessarily follow any one story line, but showcases the interactions, daily occurrences and misdeeds of those who inhabit the hospital: Thackery battles cocaine and opium addiction, along with the constant, mad drive to achieve greatness. Edwards butts heads with Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson), Thackery’s favorite pupil who feels threatened by Algernon. And one of the more interesting portions follows Tom Cleary (Tom Sullivan), the big, brutish, Irish ambulance driver. His antics provide insight into the lives of the lower class, as well as the unruliness of the time (he’s seen having to physically fight other ambulance drivers for patients).
The stories and characters serve as secondary to the true draw and spectacle of the show: the time period and the medicine. Surgeries are gruesome, seem archaic and uncleanly, and are so incredibly well displayed that I couldn’t help but pull at my hair from tension and disgust. Quite simply, the makeup and presentation is thrilling. Ailments ranging from bulging hernias to noses worn away by syphilis are shocking to see, and the treatments for them are equally seductive, though in the most visually repulsive of ways.
Steven Soderbergh’s directing showcases the action to great effect. Unorthodox, distant angles are inherently unnerving, adding to the crowded, bustling and undoubtedly dirty streets of 1900’s New York, which are shown beautifully. Unfortunately, reluctance to ever steady the camera can be a nuisance, as shaky cam is unnecessary in every single shot. The music as well is often absurd. Cliff Martinez (composer for “Drive”) uses his typical blend of subtle though unsettling electronic music, which can be atmospheric, though is bizarre considering the time period. Audio as well fades in and out, and has bizarrely poor quality for a show of its regard.
As a whole, “The Knick” is well worth watching. Its flaws are few, and the stories tend to be interesting and they certainly pay off. Overall, it’s worth watching at least to squirm at the curious medical tendencies from 1900, and for great performances from a talented cast.
Ethan Sapienza is a contributing writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.