“Method and Madness,” the first episode of the new Cinemax drama The Knick, is one of the better drama pilots to air this year, or in recent memory. The often graphic story largely takes place at the semi-fictionalized Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900 New York City and makes viewers so, so thankful for technology and our medical progress. But The Knick’s brutal look at life more than a century past isn’t a sort of medical voyeurism; it’s an ode to advancement — to striving to know more and do more to save ourselves and each other. Throw in corruption, drugs, racism, nudity, and surely a lot more blood and guts, and we’ve got ourselves one of the more engaging dramas on TV.
Here are five reasons to give The Knick a try:
1. The Director: Steven Soderbergh, the supposedly-retired film director, turns his lens again to TV (after the successful Behind the Candelabra), and the result is exquisite. He directed all 10 episodes of the first season as if it were a movie, and what we see on screen certainly has a filmic quality. The compositions and colors are gorgeous, and there’s something to be said for having one director helm a series, even if for a season. The continuity of Carly Fukunaga’s direction of True Detective’s first season (combined with the amazing talent of the leads) inarguably raised the series in viewers’ and critics’ esteem, and Soderbergh’s style surely is elevating The Knick in a similar manner.
2. The Score: Everything in The Knick is period-specific, recreating 1900 New York City in painstaking detail. Everything except the score. Cliff Martinez, a longtime collaborator with Soderbergh who also has scored films such as Drive, brings his recognizable, pulsating beats to the series. A buggy-pulling horse clip-clops down cobblestone streets to electronic music, and the anachronism works. (Take a listen.) The stress of the operating room or the act of walking the city streets are brought to life through Martinez’s music in a way period music likely would have made the scenes commonplace.
3. The Cast: Clive Owen, unfortunately masking his accent, leads a strong team of actors as Dr. John Thackery, chief surgeon at The Knick with a God complex as such to take a mentor’s funeral as an opportunity to self-aggrandize. Perhaps this is the one clear fault of the show — haven’t we seen this sort of anti-hero before, complete with a narcissistic streak and a secret drug habit? Still, Owen brings a self-assurance to the role that is much-needed for Thackery and at least so far hasn’t come close to being over-the-top. He hits all the right notes.
Likewise, Andre Holland is strong as Dr. Algernon Edwards, a black surgeon brought to the hospital by Knick benefactor Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance). Thackery isn’t interested in integrating his operating room, much less The Knick, but thankfully it’s not up to him.
It’s too soon to tell how strong Eve Hewson will be as Lucky Elkins, a quiet nurse with a Southern accent who has several interesting interactions with Thackery in “Method and Madness.” Cara Seymour, however, as Sister Harriet, steals every scene she graces.
Also, that is young William Miller (Michael Angarano) of Almost Famous behind that beard:
4. The Blood: As someone who is too squeamish to give Hannibal a try, it’s not easy for me to suggest that The Knick’s gore is beneficial. But it is necessary. A botched placenta praevia surgery is by no means pleasant to watch and for some could prove traumatic. But in the pilot at least, the graphic content is present to aid the story, not to distract from it or cheapen it. Which brings us to …
5. The Science: This isn’t a tale about gadgets making modern medicine so much easier; this is the tale of the pioneers who hacked their way (sometimes literally) through the field in the name of progress, whether or not their ambitions were similarly noble. The Knick is about modernity set in a world that still defining what it is to be modern — Queen Victoria is still on the throne, for crying out loud. Thackery plays blacksmith to forge his own tools to use in surgery, and it’s that kind of drive and innovation that keeps Edwards from leaving a hostile environment. He’s just as interested in progress, and perhaps this is where the two men can find common ground.
For now, it should be a thrill to watch them work.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.