I admit to a few prejudices as a critic, and one of them is that, generally speaking, I don’t often enjoy period pieces on television, costume dramas that try to evoke a bygone era. The Knick, whose second season premieres tomorrow night on Cinemax, is an exception to this feeling of mine: I admire it, and enjoy it a lot.
One reason for this is that there’s an undercurrent of modernity that runs beneath this drama set in the early 20th century, like the coursing electronic music that comprises the show’s soundtrack. A central theme of this show overseen by director/cinematographer Steven Soderbergh is the relentless push forward of history, propelling people into future innovations and social situations whether they’re ready or not.
The Knick’s embodiment of future past is Clive Owen’s Dr. John “Thack” Thackery, a brilliant surgeon who’s also an incorrigible rake and a dreadful drug addict. Thack is very much a modern TV hero — full of existential dread, wicked irony, and a jaded suspicion of the motives of his fellow man and woman. Yet for all of Thack’s doomy ruminations, and for as many times as Soderbergh guides his camera through one gloomy turn-of-the-century room after another, one of the best things about The Knick is that it’s not a TV-fashionable “dark and gritty” drama. It has terrific speed and an underlying optimism that change is good, that there are admirable qualities in some of the least likely people.
Under the guidance of co-creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (they write nearly all the episodes; Soderbergh directs and photographs ‘em all), The Knick begins its second season in the midst of unprecedented change. The hospital that gives the show its title — the real-life Knickerbocker, in New York City — is subject to being closed down and relocated to a new hospital under construction.
By contrast, Thack, all but left for dead at the end of the first season, is having his mind and body re-constructed in whatever they might have called rehab before there was rehab. We in the audience can chuckle and shake our heads at the early-1900s theory that a cocaine addict can be “cured” by giving him heroin, but the chuckle strangles in our throats when we see the agony Thack endures trying to give up both substances in order to regain his life and his job.
Another doctor resorts to a drastic move, taking Thack on a long sailboat ride until he goes cold-turkey-clean. These are typically amazing-looking scenes, and make you wonder what kind of happy masochist Soderbergh is, that he decided he wanted to lug his camera into the tiny hull of a ship to twist and turn in its cramped spaces to document Thack’s recovery period.
Meanwhile, things are bustling in Manhattan. One horse-drawn ambulance has been replaced by a motorized car — a subplot in itself — and the writers have decided that the most important secondary character is probably Andre Holland’s Dr. Algernon Edwards, the black doctor who has to overcome racism and now a detached retina to continue to be, in Thack’s absence, the best surgeon in the Knick.
The storytelling in The Knick parallels the style in which it is presented. Everything is fluid and constantly shifting; the upper layer exists to crumble and reveal the fragile lower layer. For all their impeccable manners and social niceties, every character is struggling mightily to achieve something while maintaining a serene veneer. In addition to Thack and Algernon, the strivers include Juliet Rylance’s Cornelia, a high-society social activist, married to a limp stick of a man who doesn’t realize his own father is sexually abusing Cornelia, who nevertheless is not presented as a mere victim.
The new season also delves productively into the private life of Eve Hewson’s Nurse Lucy Elkins, Thack’s erstwhile lover and, it turns out, the daughter of a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher who causes her fresh pain. Indeed, everyone, medical professionals and patients alike, is in varying degrees of pain in The Knick, but the show is not mired in agony. It’s frequently witty, vulgarly funny, sexy, and suspenseful. It makes you want to see its next scene the instant a new episode ends.
The Knick airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.