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The Knick is the period-piece medical drama you didn't know you needed

It reimagines an early 1900s hospital as a blood-drenched hellscape.

Clive Owen's haunted performance is a vital part of The Knick's success.
Clive Owen's haunted performance is a vital part of The Knick's success.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

TV medical dramas long ago stopped being compelling. After the long runs of ER and Grey's Anatomy — to say nothing of shorter, but still long, runs for shows like House and Chicago Hope — it's tough to find anything new to say in the genre. Except a show you're not watching has, in thrilling fashion.



That's why you really should be watching Cinemax's early-1900s medical series The Knick, which is a sumptuous, surprisingly nimble treat. It returns for its second season on Friday, October 16, at 9 pm Eastern, and simply by shifting everything to the turn of the 20th century it's made a hidebound genre feel that much more compelling.

In its first season, the show occasionally leaned too heavily on medical drama clichés, but by its end it had pulled together nicely, with one hell of a cliffhanger (about which more below). Now, in season two, it's altogether richer, more daring, and even more fun.

Here are five reasons to let The Knick fill the medical-drama-size hole in your life.

1) This is one of the most thrillingly directed shows on TV

Steven Soderbergh on The Knick.
Steven Soderbergh directs an episode of The Knick. He's the one at right, who's carrying a camera and not in period garb.

Of course it is. Oscar-winning director and all-American auteur Steven Soderbergh has directed all 20 hours of the show so far. Since every script for the season is completed in advance of shooting (mostly by creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, whose research into period medicine is unparalleled), he's able to film a nearly 600-minute project in less time than many 120-minute films take. He gives the series the kind of cohesive visual style that few other TV shows can approach.

For the most part, we're not used to thinking of TV in terms of its visuals but rather in terms of the stories it tells. It is, after all, still a medium dominated by writers. That makes The Knick an anomaly, but an interesting one, especially if Soderbergh's journey from the world of film to TV is at all predictive of what's to come.

And in the first four episodes of season two, Soderbergh outdoes himself in terms of beautiful images. The main character is outlined against bright blue skies as he slowly, painfully overcomes a crippling addiction. The camera closes in on a woman's face from a wide shot as she realizes just how alone she truly is. Human faces dominate so many frames, as if Soderbergh were inviting us to see them as a collection of component parts.

"It's so refreshing and encouraging to have a singular vision for something like this. It's his baby. He's on top of all aspects. He lights, he edits, he directs, he operates. There's just something great about not having a series of voices driving the thing," Clive Owen, who plays the series' lead, told me.

Half the fun of watching this show is realizing how skillfully Soderbergh tells the story so that you would understand its emotional undercurrents, even if the television were on mute.

2) The show examines addiction in intricate detail

Clive Owen on The Knick.
Clive Owen plays Thack as a man who's trying desperately to hold himself together.

Owen's character, Dr. John Thackery, spent most of the first season horribly addicted to cocaine. In the season finale, he was finally sent to a sort of proto-rehab, where he was to overcome his addiction with the help of a new wonder drug, which turned out to be heroin. It was a dark, sick twist to end the season, and as season two begins, Thack (as many call him) struggles to return to his normal life.

The series doesn't turn addiction into a plot point or something Thack simply needs to overcome. It allows its horrors to forever stalk him, and as the season wears on, he decides to start treating it as a medical problem, something that might eventually be cured. Thack is nothing without a quixotic quest, and in trying to chase his own demons (quite literally), he's got one that gives the season greater drive.

"The drive in him that pushes him to push forward the boundaries of medicine is the same thing that causes him to have a very addictive personality," Owen told me. "It's treading that high-wire act and playing that balance."

3) The surgeries are like nothing else on TV

The Knick surgery
There's some blood, but this scene is ultimately pretty tame.

Even if the entirety of The Knick were a mess outside of the surgical theater, it would be worth watching for the squirm-inducing, riveting moments when it gives itself over to Thack and his colleagues as they push the boundaries of early-20th-century medical science. These sequences are bloody and gross and riveting. Even when nothing else is working, they are.

Above all else, they underscore just how on the edge medical science was for so very long. The era depicted in The Knick is barely over 100 years old, but it might as well feel like another world entirely for as dangerous as every surgery seems to be. There's a moment in one episode when the only way to perform a necessary procedure is to slip a knife behind a patient's eye without somehow splitting it open, and it might send you right out the window. It's great.

"Every operation was happening at that time in the way we do it in the series. What it does is make you think there is no question that in 50 years' time we'll be looking back and saying, 'Did we really believe that at that time?'" Owen told me.

4) The focus on women and racial minorities is even more pointed

Andre Holland in The Knick
André Holland's role as Algernon Edwards grew more and more important throughout season one.

The Knick sneakily turned into an examination of how women and black people survived in its world in season one. It took some time, but by the season's midpoint, André Holland's Algernon Edwards was almost as important as Thack, and the series had dug into what was both exciting and isolating about being the first black surgeon at the titular hospital. He and Thack, initially at odds, ended up a terrific team.

The show's focus on women is almost as skillful, particularly when it comes to Cara Seymour as Sister Harriet, a nun who also performs abortions and finds herself afoul of the church and the law as the season begins. Implicit within The Knick is the idea that Thack gets chance after chance after chance to fuck up, because he's brilliant and he looks like Clive Owen, while others around him are quickly tossed aside for the most minor of events.

But, weirdly, Thack's addiction allows him to find common cause with the others around him. He might not be truly an outsider, but the fact that he's forever on the edge of completely crumbling into dust gives him a slight glimpse into others' lives. That led to the staff and occupants of the Knick feeling like a community with common cause in season one, which gave the series a surprisingly modern feel. That continues in season two.

5) It's just cool

The Knick winter
On The Knick, it's always winter, but never Christmas.

From Cliff Martinez's throbbing electronic score to the way the series seems to take place in an everlasting December, and from the soft glow of the early electric lights to the unblinking focus on Thack's issues, this is a show that always seems to make the right call to feel completely like itself and no other show.

The Knick still, occasionally, leans on medical drama standbys, as if it were ER in 1901, but even those feel less obvious in season two. All in all, this is a show as confident and self-possessed as any on TV, sure of what it is and of where it's going. Even if you haven't seen season one, the show has enough episodic elements to dive on in with the new premiere, and if you have, you're in for an even bigger treat.

And if none of that's reason enough, take it from Clive Owen: "We do some pretty epic operations in season two." Sounds just fine to me.

The Knick airs Fridays at 9 pm Eastern on Cinemax.

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