Remember that time when Steven Soderbergh was going to quit directing and do something else and we were rightfully sad? I mean, to be fair he said he was going to not direct feature films anymore and has since done two wonderful projects for television, first with the Liberace biopic on HBO entitled Behind the Candelabra, and on HBO's sister channel Cinemax, the television show/miniseries titled The Knick.
The show is set in 1900 New York, around a fictional hospital named The Knickerbocker. The hospital employs some surgeons who may be socially frowned upon yet their skills are avant-garde to the point that the mortality rates for the hospital are quite low compared to others. Chief among the surgeons is John Thackery (Clive Owen, Blood Ties), whose aspirations for peer recognition and notoriety in the hospital are only matched by his addictions to cocaine and opium. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland, Black or White) is an African-American born, European trained surgeon whose appearance scares off many, but whose talents Thackery recognizes enough to make the Assistant Chief Surgeon, over the objection of Dr. Eric Gallinger (Eric Johnson, Rookie Blue). Rounding out the ensemble is Jeremy Bobb (The Drop), playing hospital administrator Herman Barrow, Michael Angarano (Red State) plays the young surgeon Dr. Bertram Chickering, Eve Hewson (Enough Said), plays nurse Lucy Elkins, and Juliet Rylance (Frances Ha) plays Cornelia Robertson, childhood friend of Algernon's and head of the Knick's Social Welfare office.
Created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (Raising Helen), the show does a great job of showing how analog much of the medicine of that era was, and how the doctors attempted to cope with it. There is a procedure done in the pilot that is gruesome and disturbing, yet one which was done routinely and whose results were depressing in part, because no one could consider the technology involved to change the game at that time. Once the medical backdrop is set in the first episode, all of the other things for the season begin to fall into place, be it Edwards' friction with Gallinger despite the former's clear abundance of talent, or Thackery's addictions beginning to interfere with his work and sending him down a spiral where he is not sure where he will come out.
Thrust into this relatively unfamiliar role of carrying an ongoing story of this length, Owen manages to handle himself well as Thackery, a guy who compensates personal loss with lots of drugs, sometimes pulling others into this web and corrupting them as well. We find the end of the season with Thackery at an understandable point of reset, and encouraged by what we think he may do in the future. Performance wise, Bobb is quite good as the Manager who is almost a bit of an extortionist, and the moments within his character's storyline are decent, as are Collins, Rylance and Hewson.
The show handles illnesses of the era well (woohoo, nose-losing syphillus!), but handles the social aspects of the time just as nicely, be it race riots, views on mental health and other topics of the day. With that said, I did wince a little at one of the decisions the show makes when it came to a few of their characters, but surprisingly the subsequent components of those storylines went rather well. It seemed as if Amiel and Begler were cognizant to avoid similar pitfalls in those decisions and stuck to the era and character ethos nicely.
Speaking of Amiel and Begler, I presume they gave the keys to the car to Soderbergh to drive, and things work out about as well as one would expect. There seemed to be a deliberation to bring the viewer into the scene physically as much as possible, with handheld cameras and wide shots to serve as witness to the action when the moment calls upon it.
The Knick may not be the cheeriest material on television, but in between Soderbergh's command of the materials at his disposal and the performances of most of the members of the ensemble, that it was off a lot of people's radar gives many now the perfect chance to check it out for the first time (as I did) or see it again. Bring on Season Two.
The Blu-ray Discs:
Ten episodes (spread over four discs), presented in 1.78:1 widescreen with the AVC codec, all looking amazing. Soderbergh directed, as well as utilized his usual pseudonyms to serve as Director of Photography and Editor for the show, shooting on RED digital cameras. Colors look superb, be it the intentionally overblown whites in the operating theater, the lush reds of a dining room (or those coming from patients, which flirt with deep black to illustrate an ailment) or the whites going on greys of winter near the end of the season. Textures in clothing and tapestry can be ascertained, and a shot of Thackery working on a patient while in apparent opiate withdrawal gets you all up in Clive Owen's grill to spot the pores and facial stubble. Soderbergh does great stuff here and it looks fantastic.The Sound:
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround for all episodes. Of note, Cliff Martinez' electronic, almost industrial-inspired score throughout The Knick is hypnotic, chaotic, all-encompassing, and that he did not receive an Emmy nomination for it is one of several outrages with that list. Nevertheless, Martinez (who's been working on Soderbergh projects for a quarter century now) gives you a score that hits almost all the right emotional notes and sounds dynamic. Quieter moments of dialogue are well-balanced and the directional effects and channel panning are present and effective, whether it is the slow drip of the operating room theater tiles or larger moments that pan around the riots. An excellent sound source that impresses from beginning to end.Extras:
There are episode wrap-ups, titled "Post-Ops", which are included on every episode but the first, and are generally 90 to 120 second looks at the episode that aired, any thoughts about it, or requisite reinforcements to how real something was. They total less than 20 minutes (17:54 by rough math) and are quick hits that are forgettable. Amiel, Begler, Bobb, Hewson, Angarano, Johnson, Chris Sullivan (who plays the ambulance driver Tom Cleary) and Cara Seymour (Sister Harriet) get together for commentaries on episodes One, Seven and Ten. The tone of the commentaries is generally the same, where something that was illustrated in the show really did happen in the time and frequently, or how great Soderbergh was on set (spoiler: pretty great), or some production recollection, with a light sprinkling of ideas on what may occur in Season Two. The group is quite familiar with one another and like joking with one another quite a bit, but the commentaries get quieter as they go, and they are fairly bland.
iTunes and Ultraviolet codes for the first season of episodes, along with a URL to download an iTunes book which includes scripts for each episodes, along with production trivia and a foreword from Soderbergh. The scripts are interesting in that they include some stills to a corresponding page, but more importantly include notes from Cinemax on possible trims or deletions in the script, as well as Soderbergh's response to them, which were more fascinating to me than most any of the extras on the package.Final Thoughts:
At a high level, The Knick is a compelling show to watch, in the hands of one of the best directors of the generation, trying something new and making it work in the process. Technically the discs look and sound fantastic, and the extras are good, worth it for the eBook alone. Very much worth the time to invest for fans of Owen, Soderbergh or just good television drama.