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Steven Soderbergh Made a Gilded-Age “ER” and It’s Riveting

Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

As cable antiheroes go, the cocaine-injecting, Shakespeare-quoting, egomaniacal doctor Clive Owen plays on “The Knick” is nothing new. Chief surgeon at a turn-of-the-century New York hospital, Owen’s John Thackery is a genius and a madman, a functioning addict and a radical visionary; he’s every male lead of every cable drama of the last five years. Luckily for viewers, though, Thackery is the protagonist but not the driving force of Cinemax’s new drama, which owes its pulsing life and kinetic urgency to Steven Soderbergh, who directed all ten episodes. 

It’s been 18 months since Soderbergh, Hollywood’s most industrious auteur, retired from film, and during that brief time he’s given us HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, a twitter novella, and an off-Broadway play. With this new series, premiering Friday night, Soderbergh has brought his considerable prestige to Cinemax, HBO’s redheaded step-channel. “The Knick,” a gritty glimpse of Gilded Age New York, should help rid the pay-cable network of its Skinemax reputation, though there’s still plenty of flesh: It’s just horribly infected and badly sutured, cut-into and cauterized. The first ten minutes of the premiere are among the most gruesome I’ve seen this year, as Thackery and his mentor, Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer), attempt an emergency C-section on a woman with placenta previa, an operation they have already failed at twelve times before. The Knickerbocker’s operating theater is Apple-store white, surrounded by a gawping audience in dark suits. This is cutting-edge medicine circa 1900, and it’s terrifying. 

“The Knick” is short for Knickerbocker Hospital, where Thackery and his colleagues treat everything from typhoid to appendicitis. Ambulance drivers, paid for each patient they deliver to the hospital doors, fight with each other over sick bodies. Based on real-life surgeon William Halsted, who performed the first blood transfusion and the first radical mastectomy (all while addicted to both cocaine and morphine), Thackery is a man of science. He buys cadavers to experiment on and invents his own surgical instruments, smelting new forceps out of metal. “We now live in a time of endless possibility,” he declares. “More has been learned about the treatment of the human body in the last five years than was learned in the previous 500. Twenty years ago, 39 was the number of years a man could expect from his life. Today, it is more than 47.” This is the birth of professionalized medicine, when surgery moved—as Thackery says in the second episode—“out of the barbershops and into the future.”

Not everything about this new world is welcome. When Thackery needs to hire a new deputy surgeon, he’s forced to heed Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), the progressive daughter of the hospital’s wealthy benefactor, and hire Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland)—a Harvard-educated, London-trained surgeon, who also happens to be black. Edwards is undesired, and met with ugly racism from the rest of the characters, but the Knickerbocker needs the Robertsons’ money to wire the hospital with electricity. The electrification is an ongoing plot point through the series’ early episodes, where it serves as a somewhat simple metaphor—for scientific knowledge and modernity and the onset of a new era—and adds a painterly quality to Soderbergh's cinematography, bringing a gorgeous, diffuse light into the darkened scenes.

If not for Soderbergh’s tremendous directing work, ‘The Knick” would qualify as a fairly straightforward hospital drama: “ER” among the tenements. I don’t mean that as a critique. The medical procedural is one of TV’s most compelling, versatile genres, and with “Grey’s Anatomy” on its last legs (yes, it’s still on), the networks haven’t offered much to take its place. Like Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” and PBS’s “Call the Midwife,” “The Knick” uses historical distance to make sickness into something strange and unfamiliar, giving its doctors the aura of scientific adventurers.

None of this is done with the wink-nudge of historical irony that can be endemic to period dramas, though. However distant its subject, “The Knick” feels astonishingly alive—more of the “Sherlock” school of olde times than the “Downton Abbey” one. Cliff Martinez, a longtime Soderbergh-collaborator, scores the series with anachronistic electronica music, and Soderbergh’s camera never settles down. The material, though drawn from a hundred years earlier, feels fresh: Racism, class, and xenophobia all subtly inflect the plot. Thackery is dour, but the series never is.