Bigotry, disease, addiction and ample amounts of blood splash over "The Knick" (9 p.m. Aug. 8, Cinemax; 3.5 stars out of 4). It's not easy to watch, but the Steven Soderbergh-directed period hospital drama sure is worth a look.
The director, who retired from feature films last year, doesn't flinch at depicting early-20th-century surgical procedures in all their disturbingly gory glory. Surgeons fry a man's insides—and electrocute a nurse—while testing a new procedure using barely-tamed electricity. They sew skin from a woman's arm to her face to replace a nose lost to syphilis, leaving that skin also attached to her arm for weeks while the graft takes. They hack away at patients, sometimes going elbow deep into bodies but rarely saving a life.
"It seems we are still learning," one doctor says after a particularly brutal (failed) procedure. "If nothing else, this has been instructive for you."
Believe it or not, in 1900, New York's Knickerbocker Hospital offers the most advanced medical care of the day. And Dr. John Thackery is the hospital's rock star, pushing the envelope with every surgery in hopes of finding the key to actually saving lives.
He's also an egomaniac, cocaine addict and all-around jerk. Thackery may be an overused TV trope, but Clive Owen attacks the role with surgical precision, cutting through the cliche to present a man who unapologetically revels in scientific discovery and possibility.
One of Thackery's least likable qualities is his treatment of Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), a black physician with spotless credentials whom Thackery is forced to hire. Money from shipping tycoon August Robertson (Grainger Hines) and his hands-on daughter, Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), help keep The Knick open—and Edwards is their man. Thackery may not be a racist, but he doesn't want to hire a doctor from whom patients will refuse treatment.
Not surprisingly, "The Knick" goes beyond its period medical stories to touch on still-current issues including race, abortion, corruption and the right to health care. And while many of its characters are shallow archetypes, it introduces fascinating characters such as Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), a chain-smoking nun who forges an uneasy alliance with greedy ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), and Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), a rookie nurse who becomes less innocent through each encounter with Thackery.
Soderbergh directed all 10 episodes of the first season, written by creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (it's already been picked up for a second). Unlike the stateliness of "Downton Abbey" and other like dramas, Soderbergh banks on grittiness, using hand-held cameras at odd angles to track a slow-motion fight or race to catch up to characters.
Cliff Martinez's spare score isn't the period ragtime you'd expect, but a haunting electronica that is oddly effective in setting the era from the characters' perspective: They're at the forefront of rapidly changing times.
You can witness the excitement, too, if you can stomach "The Knick."
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