Review – The Knick, Episode 1, “Method and Madness.”

Believe it or not, white New Yorkers in 1900 were pretty racist!

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click to enlarge Review – The Knick, Episode 1, “Method and Madness.” - Cinemax
Review – The Knick, Episode 1, “Method and Madness.”

I came to this new historical drama, from Stephen Soderbergh and Cinemax, very, very ready to like it. It’s got so many things I love – antiquated medicine, workplace drama, drug abuse, buckets of blood. Most of all the series, set in New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital around 1900, promised to explore an important aspect of a time period that fascinates me. Just as the promise of modern science is becoming clear, the surgeons of “The Knick” spend their days running up against the complex, sometimes grim and discouraging reality of progress.

All good on paper. But at least in its first episode, it fails to deliver. The cinematography is schizophrenic, with a handful of frenetic shakycam montages set to electronic music giving way to a leaden, silent parade of two-shots. And whatever his accomplishments, Soderbergh’s direction here is deader than the unlucky patients, midwifing wooden performances from actors stiflingly aware of their presence in a ‘period piece.’ There seems little promise of the kind of moments, so important to the likes of Mad Men or Deadwood, that jolt us with a dose of human subtlety across time.

But what truly cripples "Method and Madness" is the script. There’s barely a recognizable human character in sight. Clive Owen’s John Thackery is a secondhand Bowery version of Gregory House – a quick-tempered, drug-addicted louse who earns grudging respect through his talent and commitment – and he’s a sucking vacuum of interest at the center of the whole thing. Owen’s undefined fog of an accent drives home the character’s predictability like some sort of taunt directed at the audience.

There’s a serious lack of action, given a setting much more inherently physical than our own - anyone coming to The Knick for a Gangs of New York booster is in for a disappointment. We do get one energetic character in the violent ambulance driver Cleary, and another promising (if atrociously acted) thread from the corrupt Health Inspector Speight, but nobody else seems to be having much fun.
It’s telling that these side-plots are more engaging than the episode’s (and presumably the series’) central conflict, a spoonful of racial-tolerance medicine that goes down rancid. Thanks to the efforts of a benefactor’s daughter who comes off as more entitled and naïve than progressive, the highly qualified African-American surgeon Dr. Algernon Edwards is named deputy director of the hospital, against almost universal protest. Used to working with European colleagues who respected him, Edwards quickly decides to resign the post when he faces derision from New York’s surgeons, Thackery most of all.

Then comes the low point of the episode, so bad I’m honestly embarrassed for the scriptwriters. Just before storming out with his head held high, Edwards witnesses Owen’s Thackery perform an impressive surgery using a new instrument he’s made. Immediately, all of the indignity is forgotten, and he declares that he’ll stay at The Knick until he’s “learned everything [Thackery] can teach me.”

So, if you’re looking for a strong black character, you might be out of luck there, too.

Its ham-fisted and self-undermining condemnation of racism is just the worst of the ways the script filters its era through an unsubtle and confused contemporary moralism. We’re clearly intended to feel really bad about the poor girl who has to get to her shift at the garment factory, and we’re shown a good bit of degradation caused by Thackery’s cocaine addiction.

But this tone – so similar to Soderbergh’s Traffic – buries the real complexity of history. For a start, child labor wasn’t universally condemned in 1900 – federal child labor laws didn’t pass in the U.S. until 1938. And cocaine dependence wasn’t even broadly recognized as a problem at the time – Sigmund Freud was a huge fan. A TV show that’s not up to grappling with that sort of complexity isn’t about history – it’s about furniture.

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