I spent much of the first season of “The Knick” wondering why Steven Soderbergh had chosen this, of all shows, to be his next passion project. Here was an Oscar-winning director, doing his first TV project in a decade (following HBO's short-lived “K Street”), understandably being given carte blanche by Cinemax to direct, shoot, and edit every episode himself, and he had for some reason picked a show with a relatively novel setting (a New York hospital circa 1900) but filled with stock characters, including a drug-addled anti-hero in Clive Owen's surgeon John Thackery, and other devices familiar from the last 15 years of cable drama. It looked fantastic and had great performances from Owen, Andre Holland (as a black surgeon whose skills aren't properly appreciated in a less enlightened era), and others, but it was hard to shake the feeling that the writing (mainly by creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler) was ordinary when the rest of the show was begging for far more than that.
By the end of that first season, and through the first four episodes of season 2 (it returns Friday night at 10), I had realized that the show's familiar narratives and character arcs were a feature, not a bug.
TV is by and large a writer's medium, but “The Knick” is a director's show, more than perhaps any series ever has been. Soderbergh has free rein over the series' look and sound (with enormous help on the latter front from composer Cliff Martinez's electronic score), and – as explained in great detail in this set visit feature by Matt Zoller Seitz – he's taken advantage of that freedom to experiment with how scenes are staged and shot to the point where none of it feels familiar, even if the broad strokes may echo a half-dozen other shows and films before it.
Because many of the character arcs are so recognizable, it means the viewer has to do less work on keeping up on that end, and can focus all their attention on the work the actors are doing and, particularly, on the way Soderbergh has chosen to film these moments. You'd notice anyway even with more novel character arcs, but it helps to not have to sweat that part at all and just marvel at the latest strange way Soderbergh has chosen to frame a moment.
Sometimes, his camera is racing through the halls of Knickerbocker hospital, neatly capturing the rush that Thackery, Edwards, and the other doctors feel at being on the frontier of modern medicine. In other scenes, Soderbergh will not only keep the camera completely still, but on the far edge of what we might think of as a conventionally framed shot, often resting on a character listening to someone talk off-screen, because the dialogue is far less relevant than the reaction to it. (You see this particularly with the show's more socially-marginalized characters, whether Edwards, Eve Hewson as young nurse Lucy Elkins, or Juliet Rylance as former hospital patron Cornelia Showalter, now consigned to a boring life wedded to a rich man she likes but does not love.) And as he's often done in his films, Soderbergh likes to experiment with time, with one sequence in the fourth episode, involving Edwards enjoying a night in Harlem, very much evoking the slipperiness of his best film, “The Limey.”
Almost every scene demands that the viewer asks why it was presented in that particular fashion – not in a way that distracts from the narrative, but that only helps convey the themes of the piece.
And as the series jumps ahead to 1901, it's becoming more ambitious in those themes and its articulation of them.
Thackery – last seen being sent to a primitive drug rehab facility that planned to cure his cocaine problem by giving him Bayer's new wonder medicine, Heroin – is still gripped not only by his addiction to the drug itself, but to breaking new ground on cures and procedures by whatever means necessary. (He's a mad scientist who's somehow the main character of a hospital drama.) As we watch the hospital's chief nun Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) stand trial for her night job as a secret abortionist, or as we see Thackery's protege Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) reunite with his fellow racist chums from med school, we get a sense of a culture war not wildly different from the America of today.
When Edwards chafes against the hospital's reluctance to accept him, Cornelia's brother Henry (Charles Aitken) nods to the old men who sit on the hospital board and suggests, “The world may not be moving fast enough for us, but it's likely moving much too quickly for them.” Anti-immigrant sentiment is everywhere, and most bluntly expressed by the judge hearing Harriet's trial, who promises to use the case “to sound a warning against the people now flooding our shores, and let real Americans know exactly who you are.”
Some of the supporting characters, like Jeremy Bobb's conniving weasel of a hospital administrator, Herman Barrow, remain a drag, but others have become more nuanced in time. Gallinger remains an entitled bigot, but he's no dummy; when he learns that Edwards is interested in being named permanent chief of surgery to replace the absent Thackery, he laughs and says this means, “”You're as dumb as you think I think you are.” Michael Angarano's impressionable young surgeon Bertie Chickering learns to stand up for himself, and Lucy becomes a far more complicated and tough figure now that she's not so closely bound to Thackery.
And Soderbergh's camera remains at its most unflinching when it comes to depicting the graphic, monstrous reality of surgery at the dawn of the 20th century. This has never been a show for the squeamish, but it's still shocking to watch the surgical scenes after the show's been away for so long (the first season aired a year ago tomorrow). There's one scene where a patient braces himself to have cocaine injected directly into his eyeball that I had to watch from under a blanket and behind my couch.
But the gore doesn't feels gratuitous. This was once the state of things back then, which makes it easier to understand how Thackery might become hopelessly in thrall to the drug he once used just to anesthetize his patients(*), or even why Cornelia's new in-laws seem so confused by why she wants to continue associating with the hospital. These men were miracle workers, but also experimental butchers working with virtually no oversight. When a Knick staff member transfers to another hospital with more conservative protocols in place to test new procedures, he's on the one hand relieved to not be endangering people on a hunch, and on the other impatient to dive into things with abandon, Thackery-style.
(*) Without giving too much away, I will say that Thackery does return to work, but isn't miraculously cured of his problem. Which is as it should be, because Clive Owen playing a man on a cocaine bender is perhaps the best version of Clive Owen.
As Chris Sullivan's hulking ambulance driver Tom Cleary puts it, “If people actually knew what you did in here, they wouldn't trust you to give them a fuckin' aspirin.”
“The Knick” was, and is, the best-looking show on television, even if Soderbergh is most interested in capturing the ugliness of this particular era. If you asked me to choose a show with great writing or one with great direction, I would choose the former in almost every case. But this show and “True Detective” (where the second season made clear how valuable director Cary Joji Fukunaga was to the first) are making persuasive arguments for the idea that a director-driven series can be great, too.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com