Saturday, August 30, 2014

‘The Knick’: Soderbergh medical drama on TV

(Aug. 8, PDI-Entertainment)
By Oliver M. Pulumbarit

The new Cinemax show “The Knick” isn’t your typical medical drama series. For starters, it’s not shy about showing very graphic and disconcerting hospital procedures. Among the things that viewers won’t be able to unsee are shots of bloody body parts being cut, poked and prodded on the operating table.

Directed by versatile Steven Soderbergh, whose filmmaking credits include “Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic” and “Magic Mike,” the series is set in New York in 1900. Drama unfolds in the Knick, or Knickerbocker Hospital, where Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) and an assortment of mostly grim colleagues sometimes perform unheard-of procedures.

Dr. Thackery takes over the surgery staff after his mentor (Matt Frewer) commits suicide. He struggles with the nigh-countless demands of the job while quietly proving himself a worthy successor.

His time off hospital chores, however, involves getting high in a drug den-brothel, and injecting himself with cocaine at home or wherever it’s convenient (sometimes inside a horse-drawn carriage en route to work). 

But at the workplace, he is an esteemed physician who speaks his mind and genuinely cares for his patients.
Much is tackled in the confines of the Knick, with staffers’ lives consistently focused on; their problems, quirks and shady dealings are helpful in defining them during work hours. Yes, it’s “E.R.” meets “Boardwalk Empire,” with a dash of gore for good measure.

Soderbergh, as with his other endeavors, capably handles the shift in genre; there’s solid storytelling coupled with strong characterization. What’s different this time is the lingering attention to gore. It’s hard to look at the bloody scenes without feeling queasy. Oddly enough, such scenes have morbid, trainwreck-like appeal—while squinting and cringing, you watch just the same. (The special effects used in surgery sequences are convincing and effective, so that’s a plus.)

 As someone with debilitating demons, the protagonist is an interesting, complex character. But Dr. Thackery has a confounding bias—he has trouble embracing change in the form of an African-American doctor (Andre Holland), who  is accomplished enough to join the roster. Owen does well, predictably powerful as the intermittently-impulsive and reckless doctor, who manages to keep his secrets from most of the hospital staff.
There is an almost-humorless tone, an encompassing solemn atmosphere established in its first two episodes that’s complemented by the visually lavish and transporting world. The era is depicted as beset with crippling challenges and, while it’s not conceptually groundbreaking, “The Knick” nonetheless firmly and astutely presents a reflection of relatable feats and failures.

(“The Knick” premieres tomorrow, 9 p.m. on Cinemax.) 

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