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Classing up Cinemax with The Knick


New York City, 1900: A mustachioed Clive Owen is at the center of The Knickerbocker Hospital’s theater of operations. Cinemax photo

Premiering: Friday, Aug. 8th at 9 p.m. (central) on Cinemax
Starring: Clive Owen, Andre Holland, Eve Hewson, Chris Sullivan, Cara Seymour, Jeremy Bobb, Juliet Rylance, Grainger Hines, Michael Angarano, Eric Johnson, David Fierro, Maya Kazan, Matt Frewer
Produced by: Jack Amiel, Michael Begler, Gregory Jacobs, Steven Soderbergh, Clive Owen, Michael Sugar

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Give the little girl with typhoid a teaspoon of turpentine every three hours but don’t call Dr. John Thackery in the morning. She’ll likely be dead by then and he’ll be shaking off his latest opium-induced stupor with a cocaine pick-me-up.

Such is the strong medicine of The Knick, which delves deeply and often gruesomely into surgery circa 1900 at New York City’s poor-side-of-town Knickerbocker Hospital.

This impressive 10-episode series, with a Season 2 already ordered, also throws Cinemax into the burgeoning mix of networks with Emmy-caliber dramas. WGN America newly joined this party last month with Manhattan. HBO, Showtime, FX, AMC, BBC America, Sundance TV, PBS and Netflix (technically a “streamer”) are some of the other purveyors of high quality originals. Television critics and certainly Emmy voters increasingly are of a mood to cry “Uncle.” How’s anyone supposed to keep up?

The Knick’s only marquee name is Clive Owen as the supremely talented, deeply flawed Dr. Thackery. Some viewers also might recognize Matt Frewer in a recurring role as his mentor, Dr. “Jules” Christiansen. But Frewer is sporting a bald pate and sprawling facial hair, making him almost as initially unrecognizable as a very bushy-bearded Daniel Stern in Manhattan.

Seven episodes were made available for review, and the entire Season 1 output is directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic and HBO’s recent Behind the Candelabra). A quirky soundtrack and some camera tricks are part of the bargain with The Knick, which by Episode 7 seemingly has diffused a good deal of its dramatic tension via various meetings of the minds. So some re-stirring of the pot and the plot will be both a challenge and a necessity.

Owen’s Thackery is a magnetic character whose dedication to his craft is matched only by his fondness for China Town’s drug-fueled brothels. He’s also a bigot who flatly refuses to accept a black doctor as his deputy chief of staff. “I don’t want you in my circus,” Thackeray tells Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), a Harvard grad and visionary surgeon whose backing comes from The Knick’s major benefactors, the wealthy white Robertson family.

The clashes between Thackery and Edwards are the meat of The Knick. But an array of vivid supporting characters also make their marks.

Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) is the brutish, Bluto-like driver of a horse-drawn ambulance. He has a nose for underhanded deals and a fondness for robbing corpses of their valuables. His verbal sparring partner is tart Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), who runs an orphanage linked to The Knick. Her secret life, uncovered by Cleary, leads to an unlikely partnership and some terrific scenes between the two.

Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), a drawler from West Virginia, endures a nasty dressing-down from Thackery in Friday’s Episode 1. Nonetheless she admires his brilliance. And by Episode 5, Lucy has brought a brief spasm of joy into his life by teaching Thackery to ride her trusty bicycle. This particular hour is uniformly strong, with a new contraption called an X-ray machine making its presence felt amid another dispiriting surgical setback for Thackery.

The Knick’s menagerie also includes shady hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb); young doctors “Bertie” Chickering, Jr. and Everett Gallinger (Michael Angarano, Eric Johnson); idealistic hospital board chairwoman Cornelia Patterson (Juliet Rylance); and sarcastic health inspector Jacob Speight (David Fierro), who’s a good deal of fun even while tracking down the city’s newly lethal “Typhoid Mary.”

The racism of the era is palpable throughout, with Dr. Edwards ostracized to the point of setting up his own clandestine treatment facility within the bowels of The Knick. As with Thackery, though, he also has his vices. Heavy drinking at a Tenderloin district bar invariably prompts him to seek out a fistfight. And he’s as deft with a punch as he is with a scalpel.

As noted in a previous post, a large percentage of cable’s notable drama series have sought out the past as more fertile ground than the present. The Knick is more about new frontiers than frontier medicine, even though its breakthrough surgeries are thoroughly primitive by today’s standards. They’re also very bloody, save for the starkest treatment of all after Thackery’s old girlfriend comes to visit him in Episode 3 while wearing blue-tinted glasses and a black prosthetic nose.

“You’re a good candidate for restoration but it won’t be an easy go,” he tells her after she reveals a jagged hole where her nose had been. It proves to be quite a procedure indeed.

By the end of Episode 7, however, The Knick also has sutured up some major story lines via a race riot that unites the key players in a color-blind effort to protect a group of injured black patients. Other liaisons then top things off, making one wonder whether the writers and the series may have peaked prematurely with three hours still to go this season and an order of 10 episodes for Season 2.

Whatever develops, the network still derided as “Skinemax” in some quarters finally has a top tier drama series of its own. The Knick towers above previous original dramas Strike Back and Banshee, giving Cinemax a gold star on an increasingly crowded boulevard of bravura television.

GRADE: A-minus

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