Review: Cinemax ‘The Knick’ Is Early Fall’s Best New Drama

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Bottom Line: Make every effort to see Cinemax’s “The Knick,”  a period piece (1900)  10-part drama series led in the cast by Clive Owen, never better as a brilliant addicted physician at a run down hospital in a marginal neighborhood besieged by the huddled masses of the times… the new Irish, Italian, Polish, Russian and Jewish immigrants coming to the states as the established Yankees deal with the diseases that come with the poverty and their old country lack of hygiene and odd customs.

The immigration issues we are dealing with today and the arguments we hear suddenly seem so familiar.

Sexism, racism, class warfare and the dawn of modern medicine collide in this fantastic drama that pits great minds, prejudices of the times and love and sex all woven together with stellar casting, exceptional writing, and knockout performances by Owen as Dr. Thackery, Andre Holland as Dr. Algernon Edwards, the first black physician in a “white” hospital, and rockstar (U2) Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson as a stone cold revelation as Lucy Elkins, a West Virginia nurse who becomes a muse and savior of sorts to Owen’s tortured genius Thackery.

Also Juliet Rylance dazzles as patrician hospital administrator and owner Cornelia Robertson; Chris Sullivan is larger than life as tough former Irish orphan now New York ambulance driver Tom Cleary and his odd partner in crime, intellectual nun Sister Harriet, played ever so beautifully by Cara Seymour.

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Michael Angarano is pitch perfect and kind as Dr. Bertram “Bertie” Chickering, Jr. and his haughty peer Dr. Everett Gallinger is played by Eric Johnson, the put upon white man who is just beside himself as Thackery comes to respect and admire a black doctor (Algernon) who will work side by side with him at a time when free blacks were being lynched in the streets still.

Short for Knickerbocker, The Knick is set in New York City, and is a teaching hospital with a surgical theater which acts as more of a staging area for far too many premature deaths. This was time that mid-wives were pushed out of the delivery room and childbirth became the calling of the male doctor, and many women suffered dearly for it.

Placenta Previa was one of the leading causes of death in childbirth for both mother and child, and this dread situation was where Dr. John Thackery (Owen), his mentor played initially by Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer) inadvertently butchers a poor woman and child in the opening episode to a large audience of physicians. Better luck next time old chaps. All their good efforts and hubris fail them. Dr. Christiansen takes it very badly.

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We learn how Dr. John Thackery has become a drug addict and is shooting cocaine to keep up his fever pitch research. This Placenta Previa problem will be solved, By George!

In the midst of this is the introduction of a brilliant Harvard-educated black doctor brought in by Cornelia, the hospital’s owner. These two have history we learn. Dr. Andre Holland has all the moves and brain power, if not more, than Dr. Thackery, but we suffer with him, as we are in his POV watching as he must navigate peers, underlings and even his own people with indignity heaped upon indignity.

Finally there is a break through. Thackery, for all his faults, is decent enough to see Dr. Edwards for the talent that he is and rewards him with a proper place like any deserving doctor.  There are – of course- repercussions to this act.

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The beauty to this drama is the pace of the narrative, the equal measure given to a wide swath of interesting characters – especially the women – and the good amount of story given of Edwards’ and his misery and victories as an educated black man in a hostile environment everywhere he turns.

It is addictive storytelling and beautifully lensed, drenched in sepia tones as we feel immersed in the turn of the last century. Director Steven Soderbergh outdid himself with this effort.

“The Knick” is also a history lesson, for those unfamiliar, as the survival rates for surgeries and diseases were dismal prior to the 1900s.  Advances were made in surgical technique especially after World War 1, and our life expectancy exploded as diseases that were 100% fatal were now becoming manageable as hygiene practices improved.

Childbirth however, was something that was a political football men used against women and natives used against immigrants, especially as women were trying to get the vote and gain rights. In college, I had a history class that covered this subject intensely and my textbook, The Horrors of the Half-Known Life, literally talked about the doctors like Christiansen and Thackery who are dramatized in The Knick.

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Episode #1: “Method and Madness”

Debut: FRIDAY, AUG. 8 (10:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT)

Other CINEMAX playdates: Aug. 8 (11:00 p.m., midnight, 2:30 a.m.), 9 (9:00 p.m., 12:05 a.m.), 10 (12:15 p.m.), 11 (8:00 p.m., 12:45 a.m.), 12 (10:00 p.m.), 13 (9:00 p.m.), 20 (8:00 p.m.), 27 (7:00 p.m.), 29 (8:00 p.m.) and 31 (2:30 p.m.)

In 1900, John W. Thackery (Clive Owen), a brilliant yet tortured doctor working at the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York, ascends to the role of chief surgeon after the unexpected departure of his mentor, J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer). Though Thackery wants Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson), his own protégé, to take over the assistant chief position, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), daughter of the hospital’s major benefactor, insists he hire Algernon Edwards (André Holland), a talented black doctor who trained in London and Paris. Edwards encounters enmity and resentment on his first day at the Knick, but his desire to remain prevails after joining Thackery, Gallinger, Dr. Bertram “Bertie” Chickering, Jr. (Michael Angarano) and Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) in the operating theater for a daring surgical procedure.

Written by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler; directed by Steven Soderbergh.