The Knick suffers from a disease: a vitriolic overuse of hand-held and distanced cinematography coursing through every vein of its perspective. However, a body diseased can not only live but thrive and rage despite the tick-tock of untimely dusk. The Knick’s pilot, not unlike the vigor of youth, defies death by an ‘immune system’ of adept dialogue-writing, succinct and diverse character development, and uncanny set and costume design.
The Knick is a period piece set in New York City circa 1900 within the arena of the (in)famous Knickerbocker Hospital, where the nascence of professional surgery thrived (historically) and where our protagonist, Dr. John W. Thackery, writhes. Having inherited the position of chief surgeon and its responsibilities, Thackery finds himself more on the frontline of invasive medicine than ever before. Because “surgery” is a practice supremely in its infancy and a novel term in its own right, Thackery must not only learn to navigate biological obstacles, but technological, ethical, financial, and personal ones as well.
Pain and pleasure thump thematically through the pulmonary premise of The Knick, taking place in a time, as Thackery mentions, where “more has been learned about the treatment of the human body in the last five years than in the previous 500.” It’s visceral (psychologically and literally), it’s explicit (sex, drugs, and gore), it’s tense and gritty — quite a bit like real life, actually. Hubris and masochism are the name of the game with Knick: to fuck with and to be fucked by “God”. Our protagonist, albeit proud, abrasive, and substance-addicted, is likable because he strives (and writhes) with the former — for even at the impetus of hubris, the bottom line is: he saves lives. Sound familiar?
Yes, Thackery is very much modeled after Dr. Gregory House of House M.D. (Shore, 2004), but one would be sorely myopic to dismiss him on that premise. The difference resides in the arena and the conflict(s) therein. 1900s medicine, with its grotesque, desperate, painful, inefficient, and trial-and-error approach to surgery makes ‘the mystery’ not the virus (a la House M.D.) but, rather, the treatment. In other words: how can Thackery and his colleagues ‘not kill a man by curing him?’ as opposed to “what’s eating this guy?” Thus, the dramatic focus shifts from plot to character without too much ‘b-plot-quip insertion’ during otherwise very serious medical procedures (again, a la House M.D.).
The Knick’s temporal arena not only augments its plot to a novel slant, but its theme(s) as well. It’s not about the bug or even (truly) the correct course to cure it, but the moral dilemma therein: quite bluntly, should man be reaching inside of man? Should man be using his own creations to ‘reverse engineer’ God’s creations? The primary conflict of The Knick, as S1E1 suggests, is Man vs. God (also known as Man vs. The Environment) during a time where Man very much received his second wind.
Writing and characters aside, how this conflict flourishes secondarily is through costume and set design. The buildings, the streets, the transportation, the suits, the hats, the dresses, the glasses, the “Operating Theatre”—it all works to embolden the bout between God and Man (now fit with knuckledusters). We’re starting to ‘equip’ ourselves, so to speak. And, as most technological innovation goes, two arenas get first dibs, respectively: Warfare and Medicine. Although we don’t see war, per se, at the “1900s Knick”, we sure as hell see hell-fighting equal to or greater than combat.
The Knick suffers from one glaring flaw, however: Steven Soderbergh, its director and cinematographer. The pilot falls fast into “Battlefield Earth syndrome”, where an interesting/unusual camera technique is used so flippantly and excessively that it calls attention to the artifice of the form. If Avant-Garde, perfect; but The Knick is not, by any means, reflexive. The camera is mostly if not always handheld and framed back to an impersonal distance or angle, often evoking the sensation of squinting out an airplane window to see the striations of landscape. At best, the technique is obstructive; at worst, nauseating. Was this Soderberghs intent? If so, a dreadful execution—a botched surgery. And the quasi-sci-fi soundtrack doesn’t do much to aid the visual pandemic either. Unfortunately, Soderbergh is a disease that The Knick must convalesce from to prove the power of its writing.
Ultimately, despite direction, The Knick is terrific. Its prime characters are interesting, flawed, and identifiable; its time period conducts novel circumstances for ancient philosophical quandaries to ooze up in a pleasing and contemplative, as opposed to didactic, manner; and, as to the series’ theme, if one wishes to catch one of Man’s most bone-crushing haymakers to God’s face throughout human history, with some brutal counter-blows of course, catch The Knick.