When Steven Soderbergh announced that he was no longer directing movies, cinema lost a fascinating, multifaceted talent. This is the man who made films as diverse as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike, Erin Brockovich, Solaris, Kafka, and a four-hour Che Guevara biopic. Impressive variety, and even more impressive quality.
Fear not, though, because Soderbergh has turned his attention to the fertile fields of television with The Knick, a historical medical drama which is currently halfway through its first ten-episode season. Predictably, it’s pretty damn good.
Set in and around New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital in the earliest years of the 20th century, The Knick is a show about the cusp of modernity, bridging the alien and the familiar.
Electricity is newfangled and unreliable, blood is pumped out of patients manually, horse-drawn ambulance drivers scrap in the streets over lucrative patients, and cocaine is generally agreed to be wonderful.
Clive Owen heads the cast as the faintly ludicrous John ‘Thack’ Thackery, a – wait for it – brilliant but troubled doctor with an irascible personality and a drug addiction.
But the most interesting character is easily Algernon Edwards, a Paris-educated black doctor whose obvious quality the system is doing its best to ignore. The Knick is, at heart, concerned with the prejudice rotting at the heart of society, and Edwards – along with hospital manager Cornelia Robertson – is the lens through which we see the ugly truth.
Soderbergh’s direction makes the show. Aided by the anachronistic, moody electronic score, he takes what could be trite and overdone and renders it fresh, gripping, and thoughtful.
TV is becoming more and more cinematic in terms of quality, and The Knick very much feels like a ten-hour film just reaching its middle rather than ten episodes strung together into a narrative.
It’s a good thing Soderbergh is on song here, because the script doesn’t seem to be very good. The themes are endlessly interesting, but the actual words are so often flat or clichéd that you get the definite impression that this is direction elevating material (see any Rian Johnson episode of Breaking Bad) rather than the two working in tandem (see True Detective) or material elevating direction (see a whole lot of Game of Thrones episodes).
Clive Owen’s character is very difficult to take seriously on the page, but on the screen he takes on new dimensions the words barely hinted at.
I think Boardwalk Empire’s dodgy first season is a useful comparison: The Knick is grittier and more restrained but even better at evoking the filth and disparities of the early 20th century, and much more consistent.
Martin Scorsese directed Boardwalk Empire’s excellent pilot, and the show rapidly fell off until it found its feet in Season 2; The Knick hit the ground running and kept going thanks to very strong, very consistent direction.
Kieslowski’s Dekalog and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks paved the way for cinematic auteurs to try their hand at TV, and as a result we’re living in an age of continual televisual revolution. It’s only fitting that a show so obsessed with the transformation of society from historical to modern is front and centre.