Cinemax, Fridays 10 p.m.
Aug 08, 2014
Television was once the least of the visual mediums. After film, even after comics, the best-funded serial dramas were once blandly photographed affairs, stories dispensed by cameras ignorant of subtext, a technically modest and utterly utilitarian take on their cinematic cousins. No more, however, for now that 21st century television counts amongst its ranks iconic film directors such as J.J. Abrams and David Fincher, by 2014 the ante is quite high.
The most recent émigré to those ranks, Steven Soderbergh (Behind the Candelabra, Magic Mike, Ocean's Eleven), brings us The Knick. The story of Dr. John Thackery (played by Clive Owen), a brilliant yet flawed surgeon at The Knickerbocker, a hospital for immigrants in turn-of-the-(last)-century New York City, is set in a visually sumptuous world. There's perhaps a dozen meticulously constructed sets in this verisimilitude-happy program from a beatifically tranquil opium den to a meticulous operating theater, every scene is a uniquely produced symphony of focal points and complex lighting, every texture in the service of something very specific.
What that is, however, is rather hard to suss out. Under this gorgeous dressing, The Knick feels curiously hollow. The subplots it's seeding—racial tension, civil corruption, the emotional unavailability of a genius protagonist—don't appear to have any cumulative impact. While that may be an unfair assessment for a show in its infancy, its evolved visual style in conjunction with the gripping emotional power of its opening salvo suggested a story with surer footing. That it settled into the rote beats of the "smart cable drama," presenting our lesser threads and characters with a significantly compromised sense of urgency leaves us with the sense that The Knick, beautiful, thoughtful, and honest as it may be, might be absent an original thematic animus.
Of course, Mad Men gave off of these same fumes initially and without the same level of visual swagger of The Knick, to boot. Mad Men, of course, acquired a compelling and unique rhythm for a serial drama with no explicit endgame. Chances are high that The Knick may yet find its footing and there are certainly immediate rewards to be had even at this early point. Whether style over substance will again bring audiences back for more—or, if perhaps that ratio inverts—is the true question. (www.cinemax.com/the-knick)
Author rating: 6/10
Average reader rating: 9/10