In some ways Cinemax’s new medical series The Knick, set in turn-of-the-20th-Century New York reminds me of Fox’s long-running House, M.D. And that’s not a bad thing. Because, although the series, starring British actor Clive Owen (in a nicely turned-out American accent), features a bad-tempered, drug addled, but brilliant doctor, with a greater connection to Sherlock Holmes than McDreamy, the series is really unique, and very much its own show.
Medicine in the early 20th Century was really at a crossroads. Advances were being made, but not fast enough to stem pandemics and terrible diseases that doctors yearned to fix. I imagine that a physician at the time would have felt the frustration of knowing that technology was right around the corner, but just far enough away to stymie rapid progress. It is also a time when doctors finally began to get their hands dirty, and surgery came into its own as a legitimate enterprise, and not a gruesome part of the barber’s trade.
And this is the crossroads where we first meet Dr. John W. Thackery (Owen), brilliant, but dissipated; driven, but addicted to the fruit of the poppy. Thackery is a surgeon at the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York — the Knick — a private hospital catering only to those who can afford to be treated (and certainly that does not include the wretched refuse of New York’s teeming shores).
Assistant Chief of Surgery Thackery and his mentor J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer) are intensely focused on perfecting a obstetric surgical technique to save a hemorrhaging mother and her baby. They have failed time after time, and this time is no exception. Blood transfusions have yet to be developed and the operating theater is lit by gaslight; few antiseptic measures are yet known, and the surgery takes place in the midst of a lecture hall while doctors in frock coats look on in interest as the patient bleeds out.
And when Christiansen makes an unexpected departure post-surgery, Thackery becomes chief. But when he must find a replacement for himself, the daughter of the hospital’s major benefactor Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) insists upon Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), an equally brilliant black physician. Edwards has trained in Europe, where medicine has advanced much farther than it has in the U.S. Thackery refuses at first, but has little choice, and the conflict and eventual mutual respect (I imagine) that will develop between the two men will be a key source of conflict in the series.
The Knick is graphic in its depiction of gore and blood, and the injustice of early 20th Century medicine. It casts an equally harsh light on society and the emerging role of women and minorities. Owen is excellent as usual, playing the tortured, but brilliant Thackery. The American accent took a bit of getting used to, I have to admit, but you barely notice it after a few minutes as he slips into the role effortlessly.
When I first heard the series title mentioned, before I knew anything about its content, I immediately conjured a series about the British prison system in the early 20th Century (I did know that was the temporal setting). A “nick” is British slang for prison, so I put two and two together (especially with Clive Owen in the starring role, etc) and came up with seven (or something). But now, having seen the first several episodes, I wonder if the series title plays on this bit of British slang. How? Thanks for playing.
So much of The Knick suggests the prison of early medicine: the fight to break out of the old ways and into the new century — one that saves lives, that understands disease, and at the same time handcuffs its practitioners, driving them to extremes, whether addictions, the black market — even suicide. I have to wonder if the series title is an intentional play on words.
In any event, The Knick is an excellent series to distract you on hot summer nights. Its setting is perfect to offer commentary, not just on our own medical and societal history, but our own times as well. There are few American-set series that explore that time period at all, and The Knick does it extremely well!
The Knick premieres tonight, Friday, August 8 at 10 p.m. on Cinemax. You can follow the series on Twitter @AtTheKnick.
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