'The Knick' season premiere review: 'Method and Madness'

By Will Ashton,

Director Steven Soderbergh may have hung his hat on the world of film directing—at least for now—but that is not to say that he is good and gone. In fact, as the new Cinemax series The Knick shows, Soderbergh may just be on the verge of a new revolution, directing all ten episodes of this first season and coming back for its equally-episodic second season. Which, of course, includes this pilot "Method and Madness," which already showcases all the promise this new revolution should prove for the filmmaker.

Based in the early days of revolutionary modern-day medical procedures, first practiced by the doctors at the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York in 1900, the show—despite being set a whole millennium and then some before our time—has a lot to note and comment on our time. Just like shows like Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey, this show is more a mouthpiece for our social values than simply a period piece of another time. More so than those series, however, this show strives on centralizing itself on modern sensibilities and film practices, while never forgetting its time period and location.

Most noticeably effective is its minimal score by Soderbergh regular Cliff Martinez, who previously composed music for his films like Contagion, Traffic and sex, lies and videotape, just to name a few. His creeping, softly-thumping score always keeps the viewer on edge, while promising that something big is coming around the unforeseen corner. Seeing that he will be contributing his musical talents for every episode this season, it'll be fascinating to see what his score does for the show's ongoing sense of exploration, confusion and sneering dread.

It's hard to imagine anyone not understanding what show they are getting into past this pilot's first ten minutes. From the episode/show's first first shot of Dr. John W. Thackery's (Clive Owen) white shoes compositionally centralized against the dimmed red background, it's clearly evident that not only is this show clearly stylized from Soderbergh's color-lapsed, straight-faced design, but that this show is not going to subset its to the typical TV mold. This becomes all the more apparent once the show gets to the bloodier side of its televised storytelling.

To say that so-and-so is "not for the squeamish" is a fairly overused term, especially in today's more liberal-minded opinion on violence and gore in entertainment. That said, though, The Knick fills the bill on that expression, and then some. Featuring—what has to be—the most bloody C-section ever dramatized for television, The Knick proves some of the goriest, bloodiest scenes produced in television in a good while. As some who finds a good bit of devilish glee in gore, even I found myself wincing and flinching at the show's unbridled vision of old-minded medical procedures.

But never does the show feel gratuitous in its depictions of medical carnage, as these squirm-inducing procedures are part of the show's narrative arc and awakening for audiences to understand this time's limitations and malpractice. Unlike Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra, which featured some equally graphic depictions of medical care but didn't quite have more on its mind other than showcasing Scott Thorson's physical transformation and Soderbergh's traditional use of montages, these medicine scenes are here to enhance the time period. While also giving the show its needed modern touches, and exploring its characters day-to-day mechanisms and struggles.

Also, just like FX's The Strain, a great deal of props have to be given to the practical effects artists who make these bloody human parts look so realistic and graphic. Apparently, TV is the place to be right now to showcase real-life effect designs, but at least they are still getting work at all.

Despite working in a formula that is much longer than his typical time-span of narrative storytelling, the pace of The Knick is up to par with Soderbergh's quick-moving, but still character-driven films, while remaining remarkably as airtight as well. Of course, this is something that cannot be said for certain until the season (or even series) is finished, but this is definitely the case in this first episode.

As this is just a pilot episode, it is unclear just how much some short-seen subplots will be impacting the show at large. It's possible some of these are just meant to shed light on the conditions and actions of businesses and people at this time, but one or two hint appearances to come. Whether or not they will live up to their hype will have to be determined in the next ten weeks.

Cinemax has always basically been the second-removed cousin of HBO, choosing to explore the more exploitative side of their limited boundaries than using their freedom to explore a more adult-driven narrative. Thankfully, however, The Knick is a step in the right direction for the station, merging the station's desires for violence and nudity while also providing a thoughtful commentary on our social values through another time and cultural mindset. Despite all this praise, The Knick is not quite a great series yet. But there is definitely signs here that this revolutionary minded series has the wings to grow and grow.

Image courtesy of ACE/INFphoto.com

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