At least once an hour in The Knick, Cinemax’s new period piece set at the dawn of modern surgery, there’s an image of complete and utter physical grotesquerie. A nose destroyed by syphilis, perhaps, or a meningitis patient whose legs are riddled with festering rat bites. And yet, The Knick—all 10 episodes of which were directed by cinema’s most reluctant retiree, Steven Soderbergh—is undoubtedly the best looking TV show of the summer. The world outside the Knickerbocker Hospital is a grungy slurry of earthen Deadwood tones, but on the cutting edge of medical technology overseen by doctors John Thackery (Clive Owen) and Algernon Edwards (André Holland) and administrator Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), there are pops of safe, sanitary white. And, of course, the occasional splatters of slaughterhouse red.
The Knick isn’t strictly a historical account, a medical procedural, a workplace soap, or a Victorian phantasmagoria. It’s a little bit steampunk in the emerging technology littering Soderbergh’s shots of surgeries; it’s a contemplative mood piece whenever a patient’s life enters the conversation. It’s fiction about science, and the unearthly arpeggios of Cliff Martinez’s score bridge the gap between those two qualities to give The Knick a science-fiction edge. It’s a lot for one series to take on, and it doesn’t always hit its mark—but when it does, it brings something new and exciting to all of the ingredients in its stylistic hopper.
The series’ main setting is, like the time period The Knick depicts, caught between worlds, pushing toward modernity despite the impediments of The Old Ways. The premiere ends with The Knickerbocker Hospital becoming fully electrified, and other Edison innovations exist on the fringes of the series. (As does Thomas Edison himself.) It’s a friction that defines the show, from Martinez’s anachronistically electronic score to the backgrounds of its most compelling characters. Dr. Edwards is a black surgeon esteemed in Europe and regarded with endless distrust in 1900s New York; Cornelia is the daughter of The Knick’s primary benefactor, but she yearns to take an active role in hospital operations. It’s run-of-the-mill prestige-drama stuff, but Soderbergh’s direction—all shaky handhelds and long takes swinging around The Knick’s wide open wards—give this material a renewed vivacity. The same goes for Holland’s intensity in the role of Edwards, which boils over in an underlining of the color-coded scenery: “What was I supposed to do? Wait around for you to allow me into your lily-white theater?”
Not all of the human ugliness captured by Soderbergh’s camera is the kind cast in a prosthetic mold. The Knick doesn’t gloss over the ethnic and class tensions plaguing New York City at the turn of the 20th century, a theme that pulls the disparate hospital staff together when a race riot temporarily transforms The Knick into a fortress. These realities are never played for shock value, and though Thackery abandons his prejudices in whiplash-inducing fashion, that change illustrates an important truth of the series’ subject matter. There are an infinite number of things separating us on the outside, The Knick argues, but we’re all the same, a gross mess of sacs and tubes on the inside.
And really, the guts of The Knick aren’t any different from other shows of its ilk. One episode finds Algernon rushing from room to room, mid-procedure, as if he’s in a vintage primetime medical series. Looking out the window and sighing “Just another Tuesday at The Knick,” Thackery may well be the first TV protagonist (chronologically, at least) to express workplace exasperation in such terms. Creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler are well-traveled TV hands, so the occasional dip into tropes isn’t unexpected.
But it does make the visual confidence of the show that much more important. Soderbergh frames his actors with incomparable grace, be they surgeons peeking out through tables of equipment or a nun taking a midday smoke break. One procedure sequence peers up at nurse Lucy (Eve Hewson) through Owen’s outstretched arms, a wonderful visual metaphor for the support the physicians offer one another as they leap into scientific unknowns.
The Knick rides the beautifully brutal, brutally beautiful nexus of 2014’s televised finest—Hannibal, True Detective, and The Leftovers all leap to mind—set aside by moments of true hope. Like the sociopolitical realities of the era, the series acknowledges the mortal peril inherent in the pioneering practices of the fictional Thackery and Edwards, without pretending like the ultimate endpoint of this work is a mystery. There’s the occasional, Mad Men-esque chuckle at the expense of a character’s period-appropriate naïveté (Thackery brags at one point about extending life expectancy into the mid-40s), but the show lets the viewer know these medical professionals are working toward making life as we know it.
That knowledge is honored by the serialized arcs of The Knick, like the doctors’ attempts to perfect a tricky obstetrics procedure or the tracking of an enigmatic typhoid outbreak. Narratively, these disruptions are best exemplified by strides toward progress made by Algernon and Cornelia in their respective positions. But in line with the show’s greatest strengths, that’s a notion cemented in a single visual: Thackery, fed up with a sputtering fuse box, taking matters into his own hands by hacking the thing to bits. It is, like everything that’s great about The Knick, positively electric.