"The Knick"'s André Holland, Michael Angarano, Clive Owen, Even Hewson and Eric Johnson (Mary Cybulski/Cinemax)
When Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from feature filmmaking sometime in 2012, I was skeptical. He said the movie industry was too cynical and bullied directors too much to be a viable channel for artistic expression. He then named the last couple projects he would work on and closed the book.
Now it’s 2014, and Soderbergh has found himself in the grips of television. Considering the quality and scope of the television landscape, it isn’t difficult to see how this may seem like a linguistic loophole. Though it may be a technicality, there is something to be said in the differing models of both mediums. Because this is still a new stage for television, creators often have more control and say over the final product of their shows than they would had they been dealing with one of the big movie studios. It is the networks that are scrambling and aiming to please the audience, rather than the creators trying to please the networks.
Given his incredible track record, it’s not surprising that “The Knick” lived up to Soderbergh’s reputation. The show takes place in 1900 New York City, primarily following Dr. John Thackery, played by Clive Owen.
Off the bat, the most striking element is the visuals. The camera work is done beautifully as is the production design. New York never looked so gloomy than it did while drowned in his white fog. Soderbergh paints the picture of a bleak city, one where convention is left behind and radicals push the way forward.
The show opens on a caesarian section in one of the most graphically realistic scenes I can remember witnessing – either in television or film. The doctors calmly cut away at rubbery flesh as thick streams of blood gulch down the side of her body. He then reaches, with ungloved hands, beneath the flap of skin and begins to feel around. The whole affair is so utterly gruesome that I almost stopped watching. Yet, when the scene ended, it struck a chord with me. Though graphic, this was how medicine used to be practiced. It wasn’t just shock-value, it was part of the setting.
Soderbergh is priming us for a dark and relentless affair, led by Owen’s solid performance. Playing the part of the brash-but-brilliant doctor seems to come with ease, only there’s something lifeless in his eyes, something that reflects a profound void in his character. It’s hard to describe with words, but he constantly wears an expression of emptiness, just … blank. His behavior can partly be explained by his crippling cocaine addiction, which doesn’t help his lack of charm, though there’s something to be said about his attitude in general.
When confronted with the notion of employing a brilliant black doctor, he point blank refuses, telling him he has no interest in pioneering the first integrated medical staff. His point blank attitude and arrogance is quite abrasive, especially from the main character. It’s interesting to imagine how Soderbergh will navigate through this immensely bleak universe, one in which the audience may not even like the lead. But then again, maybe that’s his point.
While pitching his last feature film, Liberace, to studios, executives rejected his pitch for the reason that it would be “too gay for audiences.” So, retreating to the TV model, Soderbergh has newfound control. This time he gets to throw caution out the window and tell the story that he wants rather than the one most would like to hear.
It’s largely evident in the fact that he took his show to Cinemax, a network hardly known for its television. In a world where anti-heroes and difficult personalities seem to be a trend, Soderbergh seems to have found his new niche, at least for the time being. All we can do now is sit back and enjoy before his next inevitable retirement.
“The Knick” airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.