Cinemax is going in an entirely new direction tonight with the premiere of the ten-part series “The Knick,” from director Steven Soderbergh. Clive Owen stars as a brilliant, renegade and opiate-addicted surgeon wielding a scalpel in turn of the 20th century New York City at a fictional hospital called the Knickerbocker.
It’s a show that could have easily been on sister network HBO, but Soderbergh and network executives thought it would stand out more on Cinemax, which has so much confidence in it that it has already renewed it for a second season of ten episodes.
“I kind of wanted to be a big kid at a small school,” Soderbergh said at the recent Television Critics Association panel for the show, which also included executive producers and writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, Owen and co-star Eve Hewson. “I’m glad it worked. It allowed for a smaller teacher-to-student ratio.”
Owen said it took him only about 40 minutes to decide to take the role. “It was clear that they’d done a phenomenal amount of research, and where they wanted to take it was incredible,” he said.
Get ready for graphic surgery scenes that may be offputting to some viewers, performed as they are without gloves and with electricity running through rudimentary equipment that sometimes burns the patients. There were no antibiotics in those days and the mortality rates from what are now considered typical ailments were sky-high.
Surgeries were performed in a theater with spectators, and doctors like Owen’s John Thackery were the stars of the show, just as Owen — an actor known mainly for film roles — is the undisputed star of this television drama.
Dr. Thackery is a riveting character — a passionate man with deep ambitions to make medical history who unexpectedly loses his revered mentor to suicide and takes over his role as chief surgeon at the hospital. It’s located in lower Manhattan amid communities of immigrants and constantly struggles to attract wealthy clientele and maintain its reputation for quality care while often finding it difficult to literally keep the lights on.
“The hugely challenging thing is he’s a complex, difficult character, trying to forward medicine and save people’s lives,” Owen said about playing Thackery. “He’s a functioning addict. It’s not about being likable.”
And yes, viewers may cringe at the overt racism the character and his medical colleagues display when a black physician, Harvard graduate Algemon Edwards (Andre Holland), is thrust into the staff by the hospital’s wealthy benefactor, a shipping tycoon. It turns out Dr. Edwards is the son of one of their household staff and that the benefactor’s daughter, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) is hell-bent on making sure he is accepted as an equal.
Let’s just say Dr. Edwards finds a way to circumvent the discrimination that is showered upon him and to treat patients in a makeshift facility of his own devising where he also invents some medical techniques and new equipment.
The story takes us everywhere from the old-money mansions of the Upper East Side to opium dens, whorehouses and tenements 50 blocks south in an age when horse-drawn carriages were the favored mode of transportation and the telephone was just coming into widespread use.
One of the subplots involves an Irish ambulance driver who looks to sell bodies to the highest bidder and a nun who makes money on the side by performing acts that would get her instantly excommunicated. Watch what happens when these two team up, as well as the other interesting and unexpected alliances that are formed among people of different classes and races.
“The Knick” is a fascinating look at a bygone era when cocaine use was widespread, syphilis was devastating and typhoid could be spread by homemade ice cream. Even if you look away during the bloodiest of the surgeries.