Steven Soderbergh‘s “The Knick” dares you to hate it, and for a while it’s easy.
The Cinemax drama, premiering Friday, features Clive Owen as John Thackery, a cocaine and opium-dependent doctor working in 1900 at New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital. Electricity is erratic, life is cheap, and corpses are expensive. The facility is so strapped that it can hardly afford cadavers for Thackery’s experimental procedures.
Thackery is not a nice man. He refuses to allow a black surgeon, Algernon Edwards (André Holland), to join the staff until the hospital’s wealthy benefactors shut off the lights, but thinks nothing of operating on patients while under the influence. (His mornings begin with an injection of cocaine between his toes, and that’s on the good days.)
We’re also in a flatly unpleasant setting, where corruption seeps into every space that empathy should fill. If you’re seeing a torso, it’s probably peeled back and spread open. The show has the grisliest surgical sequences I’ve ever seen. The music is aggressively anachronistic.
But this may just be Soderbergh weeding people out. There are a lot of narratives within “The Knick,” and some of the most compelling are offscreen.
First: Cinemax is trying to shed its “Skinemax” nickname once and for all by committing to at least two seasons of the slow-burning drama. Writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, whose past credits include saccharine films like “Raising Helen” and “The Shaggy Dog,” are ensuring no one will ever again accuse them of being family friendly.
And Soderbergh is exerting the total control his talent deserves. His “Behind the Candelabra” went to HBO only after — as he told TheWrap — every Hollywood film studio rejected it as “too gay.” He pledged to retire from cinema, and who could blame him?
But instead of quitting, he turned to television. He went to HBO’s cousin Cinemax, he said last month, to be “the big kid at a small school.”
He’s throwing his weight around, challenging us to reject him — paring us down to a core group that will follow him through the bloodshed, wherever he goes.
Fortunately, he repays us. Despite first impressions that can feel one-note, all the characters turn out to be complicated and intriguing. And we become slowly addicted by the jittery uncertainty of “The Knick.” Many historical dramas feel already resolved, as if our only role as viewers is to sit back tsk-tsking at the ignorance of earlier times. “The Knick” often feels as adrenalized and uncertain as the most violent moments in our modern-day lives.
We find out by the end of the first episode whether Thackery is a good doctor. But by then it doesn’t matter. He’s a watchable doctor, in a horrible place, slowly becoming the world we know today.
“The Knick” premieres Friday at 10/9c on Cinemax.