“This is all we are.”
Steven Soderbergh seems, for all intents and purposes, like a pretty strange guy. Shooting his films in half the time of other directors, with an avant garde style and love of all things digital, and seemingly doing a lot of the heavy lifting himself, you’d also think he’d me more well known. His name is recognisable, but it’s tricky to pinpoint what exactly you know him for. I think this is partly because his films range from the arthouse to the mainstream (the guy made three Ocean’s films after all). He’s difficult to pin down. And so is The Knick, which ran on Cinemax for two seasons back in 2014–2015. This is a TV show that is clearly Soderbergh’s baby; he directs, produces, shoots, and edits every episode himself. But this is far from being a vanity project. His passion for the the story on screen comes through in every shaky, naturally lit shot. And the result is something truly original.
The series revolves around Dr John “Thack” Thackery, a pioneering surgeon working in New York’s Knickerbocker hospital at the turn of the century. Thackery, played by Clive Owen, is also a complete disaster, relying on cocaine to get him through the procedures and opium to bring him down again. He’s the ringleader of his self-proclaimed circus, cutting people open and trying desperately to fix them. He’s an endlessly watchable character, as we as an audience experience his downward spiral throughout season one, and shout in vain at the screen, hoping that he’ll sort himself out by the end of season two. Thackery bounds through the hospital, hopped up on cocaine, dragging the supporting characters down with him. And Clive Owen is tremendous here, really showing us the levels of depravity that Thack has sunk into, while keeping the guy immensely likeable.
But all of the characters of The Knick are problematic in one way or another. Either through their own vices (be it greed or addiction) or simply because they are a product of the times in which they live. Inequality plays a big role throughout both seasons, something that never really stops being timeless. A major player in the show is Doctor Algernon Edwards, played by André Holland – the first black surgeon in The Knick, and probably the whole of New York. He has come back to US after a long time spent in Europe and soon learns that the people of the good ‘ol US of A are not as open-minded as his colleagues on the continent. There, he was respected as a surgeon in his own right, publishing medical papers and enjoying high society. In the Big Apple, he’s relegated to performing illegal surgery in the basement of The Knick. People keep telling him to be happy, that he is in a very high-ranking position and he’s doing alright for himself. But when he’s surrounded by racism and hatred on all sides (including an all-out racial protest in one episode) it’s tricky to just get on with the job.
And the show barrels through these issues, without shying away from the nastier details. It covers abortion and immigration, drug addiction and syphilis, and even dips its toe into the sketchy world of eugenics in season two. Basically if you were poor, foreign, black, a woman, Jewish or basically anything other than the richest of white guys, this time period was cruel and unforgivable. And that’s how its shown to us across 20 episodes. Sure there are moments of beauty amidst the quagmire of shit, pus, and other bodily fluids, but The Knick pulls no punches in showing us how far we’ve come – or in some instances, how little things have changed.
And all of this depth would not be possible if not for Soderbergh’s thrilling direction. The world is lit almost entirely in natural light and shot on a shaky camera (usually held by Soderbergh himself). This gives the shows a realism that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, in anything. The closest I can think of is Deadwood, but even that didn’t move quite as breathlessly and confidently as The Knick. Conversations between any two characters are dynamic, with the camera always moving, framing the important elements before whizzzing into the next scene. If you decide to marathon a few episodes at a time, you come away feeling like you’ve done a speedball alongside Dr Thackery. And this mainly seems to be a result of Soderbergh’s style of production, getting both seasons filmed in the time it would take most people to complete just one.
Another element that majorly contributes to the very unique hyper-realism of the show is the perfect and daring musical score by Cliff Martinez. Matching the atypical method of shooting, Martinez does away with any sort of period-accurate musical cues you might expect, instead going for an anachronistic synth-heavy electronic score. As characters are running around the hospital, or someone is being operated on, the score gives the action on screen a feeling of urgency that contemporary music of the time just wouldn’t achieve. It’s a little jarring at first to see Thack making his way down a bustling street, surrounded by steaming street vendors and dirty horse carriages, all to the sound of Martinez’s synth-filled score, but it works. And it’s one of the first times where the score fits the show perfectly in every single scene. It never misses.
So why was it cancelled? After all, from what I’ve written here, the show is practically perfect. One reason could be the plans for the future. Soderbergh and the show’s writers have mentioned in interviews how the following seasons would jump forward in time, and some reports even have him saying the show will be filmed entirely in anamorphic black and white. So I can imagine the cost implications of having to reinvent the show every two seasons might have been off-putting for Cinemax, with the unusual style no doubt putting off even more potential viewers. Even if the team was filming the show in record time, the viewers weren’t there, with the show only building a small cult following when it aired.
Cinemax also stated that the cancellation was due to them wanting to return to their “original primetime series fare of high-octane action dramas”. The Knick is breathless and daring, but doesn’t really fit into the Cinemax mould of sex and action. This is a real shame, because they had something truly original here. Don’t get me wrong, Cinemax have their style, something I’ve been very fond of in the past. I highly regarded Gangs of London and I adored Banshee. Both of those shows are excellent in their own right, but cancelling The Knick feels like a missed opportunity. Obviously, I’m aware that the show could have gone downhill, or failed to maintain the pace within a new setting. But based on the two seasons we have, it’s a damn shame.
The good news is that show was always thought of as existing in these two-season arcs, with timeskips between. So the two seasons we have stand entirely on their own, with an ending for every character and closure on every story. With that in mind, I don’t hesitate in recommending it. It’s one of a kind. And in this era of over-saturation on TV, that’s no easy feat.