It is the best of times and the worst of times for TV. With over 400 different scripted television shows estimated to have aired by the end of the year, viewers have never had more choices of what to watch and producers have never had more options for where to take new series. However, those 400 shows make standing out no easy task. Enter “The Knick,” the Steven Soderbergh-produced, Clive Owen-starring medical drama about a turn-of-the-century New York hospital, which returns to Cinemax Friday for its second season.
Simply put, “The Knick” Season 1 was one of the best shows of the year in 2014 and had an A-list director – Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”) directed every episode – at the helm and an A-list actor – Clive Owen (“Children of Men”) – providing a healthy dose of star power. However, while the show earned respectable ratings for a Friday night air time and more than respectable ratings when On-Demand and DVR numbers were factored in, it never reached the level of water cooler zeitgeist reserved for TV’s best shows. Sure, it performed well enough to avoid unwelcome renewal drama – other acclaimed shows, such as AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” have faced many more headaches – and even scored an Emmy nomination for Owen, but it deserves more attention all the same. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Steven Soderbergh
No one is more responsible for the show’s success than producer/director Steven Soderbergh. Granted, “The Knick” is not the first show to have one person direct the whole season. Cary Fukunaga famously directed every episode of “True Detective” Season 1. However, Soderbergh is certainly the most established filmmaker to take on the task.
The fruits of having someone so talented behind the camera all the time are evident in every scene. The show’s low key lighting, dull colors and muted electronic score create a sense of claustrophobia that heightens the already compressed drama of “The Knick.” Plus, Soderbergh’s unconventional shots and coverage highlight otherwise easy-to-miss character beats and idiosyncrasies of the time period, creating a dense world reminiscent of producer Matthew Weiner’s famous attention to detail in “Mad Men.”
On top of that, Soderbergh shoots “The Knick” like a movie – out of sequence. That puts it on unique ground in the world of television. If the show is shooting at Thackery’s (Clive Owen) house, for example, Soderbergh will shoot every scene at that location for the whole season. TV shows typically shoot one episode at a time. As Andre Holland, who plays Dr. Edwards, described on Andy Greenwald’s Grantland podcast, Soderbergh’s method is a challenge for the actors, but ultimately makes for even sharper performances and contributes to the show’s tightly woven, subtext-laced drama.
2. The World Of The Knickerbocker
Speaking of “Mad Men,” the thorough recreation of the turn-of-the-century time period in “The Knick” allows the show to – sometimes subtly and sometimes more overtly -- take an unflinching look at issues like race, gender, politics and technology in a manner similar to the AMC series.
Andre Holland’s Dr. Edwards is a case study in how to depict a character confronting racial boundaries without losing any nuance or dabbling in black and white (no pun intended) clichés. Eve Hewson’s Nurse Elkins shines as a strong and skilled woman subject to whims of less stable personalities in a man’s world. Jeremy Bobb's Mr. Barrow struggles to balance the hospital's purpose – saving lives – with the economic realities of running a business.
Those dynamics reached a boiling point in Season 1’s “Get the Rope” when a riot breaks out after word gets around that an African American man accused of killing a cop is receiving treatment at the Knickerbocker. What follows is a sequence that ranks among the best on TV in 2014, as the danger outside of the hospital forces the show to double down on its claustrophobic elements.
Watch a clip from "Get the Rope" below:
3. There Will Be (More) Blood
There are a lot of violent shows on television that regularly shock fans with moments of blood and gore, but “The Knick” manages to be more unsettling and stomach-churning in scenes where Thackery and co. try to save someone than other shows do in scenes with cold-blooded murder. Fans of “American Horror Story,” “True Detective,” “The Strain,” and “Hannibal” should take note! Season 1 alone included an emergency C-section, Thackery grafting skin from a syphilis victim’s arm to her nose, and an almost endless number of unnerving needle scenes – just to name a few. Soderbergh has been promising that Season 2 will be substantially gorier. Oh, boy!
4. Season 2 Will Be "Addicting"
Things are just going to get juicier in Season 2. According to the synopsis for the premiere, the Knickerbocker is on the move. The hospital was riddled with financial problems in Season 1, so the idea had been raised in a board meeting to move it uptown. While Thackery had protested that the hospital belongs downtown where it can serve the average New Yorker, it seems that while he is missing in action the hospital will indeed be relocated.
Where is Thackery? He will be battling addiction, both personally and medically. The doctor has his own cocaine addiction to contend with from Season 1, but his personal struggles will lead him to seek a way to cure addiction in general – no small order.
There might also be new leadership at the Knickerbocker. In Thackery’s absence, Dr. Edwards wants to take over as chief of surgery. While Edwards has been slowly and steadily rising through the ranks of the Knick staff and gaining Thackery's confidence, the idea of an African-American chief of surgery will be a tough pill to swallow for some, including Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson), who will apparently refuse to return from his suspension if under Edwards' supervision.
Meanwhile, fans will remember that, against Thackery’s recommendation, Barrow made a big mistake in enlisting Wu (Perry Yung), Thackery’s mysterious opium dealer, to kill Bunky Collier (Danny Hoch) after getting too far in debt. Wu did the job, but then informed Barrow that he would be taking control of Barrow's debts. It seems Wu is cashing in on his favor in the premiere, demanding free medical exams for all his prostitutes. What could go wrong?
Watch the trailer for “The Knick” Season 2 below:
In a television landscape dominated by dragons, zombies, and Shonda Rhimes, the ceiling for a turn-of-the-century medical drama might only be so high and ten million viewers might be a lot to ask. However, “The Knick” deserves to have a place among TV’s more talked about shows. On that note, watch “The Knick” Season 2, airing Fridays at 10 p.m. EDT on Cinemax beginning Oct. 16.
Season 1 of "The Knick" is available on HBO GO and HBO Now right now. Tweet your thoughts to @Ja9GarofaloTV.