Think Call The Midwife with cocaine, suicide, racism, blood – lots of blood – and just a touch of moral ambiguity.
Okay, so Call The Midwife might not be the most apt comparison to The Knick, which follows the operations of New York hospital ‘The Knickerbocker’ in 1900. In its first five minutes Clive Owen’s grim-faced, Dr. John Thackery, wakes up in a brothel, injects cocaine between his toes, and botches a caesarean under observation. The show instantly grips you in its vice, saying this ride’s going to be aggressive, but goddamn if it isn’t going to be exciting.
Unfortunately, the show does slack at times in order to introduce us to the technicalities of the hospital. We get to know its staff, its workings and it wheels out its dramatic meat – there’s a newly appointed black deputy chief of surgery, a switch to electric lighting, and a woman in the administrator’s office. It might sound mundane to us, but The Knick strives to make us aware that this is important stuff for them. Given a few more episodes, these early narratives should ramp up the drama to be in line with the action, although nothing quite lives up to the excitement of those opening scenes.
The first such scene – the aforementioned caesarean – starts with a woman helplessly pleading “please save my baby” and ends with both mother and baby lying motionless on the operating table. Stopwatches fill the intense silence, passing the hundred seconds the doctors allowed for the surgery. It’s a painful and unapologetic few minutes. While you might be disgusted by the brutality of it all, you can’t help but admire the beauty of its execution. It’s authentic, it’s unrelenting and it’s powerful.
Social and technological change may steer the show, but it is clear that the operating theatre is where it feels most at home. Quickly and carefully darting from cut, to pump, to snip with mounting tension, gradually building to a crescendo of despair. These moments are rhythmic and exciting – Steven Soderbergh owns them, really defining the show in just a rough few short segments. Operation scenes are to The Knick what action scenes are to Tarantino – aggressive, tense, and stylish as hell. The result is as slick as it is gory, but the buckets of blood never feel gratuitous.
Sky Atlantic has landed another belter with The Knick. It has potential by the bloody bucketload, and it’ll be interesting to see if it can handle its many plot threads as expertly as its surgery. Keep your eye on this one, even if it’s kept it hidden behind your hands.