TV Review: Big Performances And Familiarity Stay At “The Knick”

After scoring critical acclaim with his HBO drama Behind the Candelabra in 2013’ Steven Soderbergh makes his returns to cable television with The Knick.

Premiering tonight on Cinemax, The Knick is a medical procedural set in the 1900’s era New York City. The Knickerbocker Hospital, christened “The Knick” by staff and locals, caters to the poor communities, which puts the facilities in financial strain. At the center of the show is Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), the supremely ambitious, cocaine addicted, recently appointed chief of the surgery staff. Amidst the monetary issues, Thackery tries to balance his personal afflictions with a hunger for innovation and progress. Further complicating Thackery’s agenda is the accomplished Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), brought on as Thackery’s next in command, who also happens to be the first African American in an all white hospital.

Clive Owen quite nearly burns up the screen with his performance as Dr. Thackery. His prideful swagger is on full display whether he’s struttingn about the hospital halls issuing demands or delivering a eulogy that has more to do about him than the departed. If all this makes it difficult to like this character, his surprising racism cements him as a real ass. Unfortunately, in the first two episodes, there isn’t much to Thackery we haven’t seen before. Flawed doctors are pretty much a package deal with medical dramas, and I felt like I knew everything about this character in the first few scenes.

Andre Holland (42) gives a more subtle approach as Dr. Edwards, brought on by the Knick’s wealthy benefactors. He’s clearly intelligent and frustrated, as we would expect, trying to endure the unpleasant cultural norm of the time while following his calling. Although the character of Dr. Edwards is given more layers, and Holland turns in a smoldering performance matching Owen’s intensity, too many of his problems are also familiar. Still, the moments with Edwards are easily The Knick’s best scenes.

While setting a medical procedural drama in turn of the century NYC is filled with promise on paper, The Knick relies too heavily on the stock conflicts and characters we’ve come to be familiar with. The ambitious, drug addicted prideful doctor versus the obviously capable black doctor with something to prove all but spells out the approaching conflict and resolution. So far all of the female characters, save for the sharp tongued and surprising Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), exist only to define the men.

Despite the predictability of the scripts, Soderbergh directs his ass off, trying to imbue the show with as much drama as possible. We may know how these things will play out, but Soderbergh crafts his scenes in a magnetic way. In his hands, The Knick is a unsurprising show that forces you to keep watching.

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