There’s a touch of the familiar about the premise of Sky Atlantic’s new period medical drama The Knick. A revered British actor playing a brilliant but flawed American surgeon, one who saves lives with his remarkable powers of deduction but can’t save himself from addiction? Where have we heard that before?
But while there may be surface similarities, The Knick is anything but a House surrogate; in fact, with its love of gore, gorgeous production design, and sickeningly tense plotting, the series has more in common with gritty period thrillers like Peaky Blinders and Ripper Street.
Set in 1900, Owen stars as John Thackery, a maverick surgeon with a cocaine problem, who leads the development of pioneering treatments at a fictionalised version of the Knickerbocker Hospital (the “Knick” of the title) in New York.
When his mentor commits suicide for botching an experimental procedure on a pregnant patient, Thackery is promoted to Chief of Surgery. His first task, as he sees it, is to pick a fight with a progressive administrator over the appointment of a black doctor, which places the installation of electricity in the hospital under threat. And in between, Thackery has to puzzle over how to save a patient who has developed a post-surgical Bronchial infection.
All ten episodes are directed by Steven Soderbergh, but aside from some inventive use of red and blue hues and a modern synth soundtrack that somehow works well in an antiquated setting, there’s little evidence of his Oscar-winning eye here.
Perhaps his most significant contribution is in securing a budget big enough to fund the exquisite production design on show. Dim gas-lit rooms, gleaming white operating theatres, newly installed trams intersecting with the outmoded horse-drawn cab; Soderbergh’s pre-war New York is a collection of dramatic contrasts that speak of a city in a constant state of flux.
In trying to capture all the social issues that exist in this changing landscape, The Knick actually does itself a disservice. While immigration, gender equality, religion and, most prominently, racial prejudice are all fertile areas for discussion, by trying to explore them all in less than an hour, the writers leave precious little time for us to get to know the main characters on screen.
But if the writers dial back the social commentary and take a more measured approach to unspooling the character drama, there’s a lot to like about this new medical drama. Not least of which is the refreshingly disturbing depiction of surgical scenes.
While most medical procedurals over-dramatize operations with flashy editing and incidental music, Soderbergh takes a stripped back approach, focusing on the surgeons in uncomfortable close-ups as they desperately struggle to save a patient’s life, with only the sound a churning medical equipment for unsettling company.
Not that this would matter if The Knick wasn’t also packed with great performances. Owen is superb in the lead role, taking the familiar trope of a tortured antihero and making it his own by playing up to the vulnerable side of a character who hides his personal troubles long enough to save a life before he crumbles inwardly in a haze of cocaine and grief.
Likewise, Holland excels as Edwards, standing bravely against the racial prejudices of Thackery and the rest of Manhattan, yet unable to walk away from The Knick’s ground breaking research.
There’s an odd rhythm to Method and Madness that speaks of its struggle to find a comfortable ground between tense medical procedural and subtle character study. But if Soderbergh and his writers can resist overloading the plot with social commentary and find a steady pulse, this breathlessly inventive, painfully graphic and wonderfully performed medical drama may soon breath new life into a flat lining genre.