The Show That Will Change Everything You Think You Know About Period Dramas
Steven Soderbergh’s new Cinemax series The Knick, starring Clive Owen, is a gorgeous medical drama about when surgery was more like butchery.
On the heels of his delightful HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra last year, Steven Soderbergh officially quit filmmaking — at least temporarily. And right after that, he signed on to make The Knick, his first television series in more than a decade, a period medical drama set in New York City in 1900 that premieres on Cinemax this Friday, August 8.
It’s the kind of move that’s commonplace these days. As Hollywood focuses on building giant genre franchises, the small screen has become a much friendlier place if you want to make dramas for adults. We’re long past the days when TV was treated as the redheaded stepchild of the movies — now all kinds of cool kids, from David Fincher to Jane Campion to Cary Fukunaga, are trying out serial storytelling. Cinema may be consumed with superheroes and young adult adaptations at the moment, but there’s always the warm embrace of cable.
Soderbergh’s always been the coolest kid of all when it comes to experimenting with new things such as shooting on digital, day-and-date releasing, and, now, making the first prestige drama on a channel that not so long ago was synonymous with late-night softcore. Below, BuzzFeed’s film critic, Alison Willmore, and feature writer, Anne Helen Petersen, discuss how the show will change everything you think you know about period dramas.
Alison Willmore: The thing I love best about The Knick is how little it owes to any other show on air right now in terms of its look — or any typical period drama. It’s shot with natural light and fluid camerawork that follows characters through the long halls of The Knickerbocker, the downtown hospital in which most of the action is set. (Soderbergh directed and shot all 10 episodes in the first season.) It looks shockingly contemporary, and it demands you consider these characters as living beings and not long-dead participants in history that’s already set.
Anne Helen Petersen: I am head-over-heels in love with this show, but in a way that reminds me of my college film-major self: I’ve found myself shockingly willing to overlook some of the weaker aspects of the writing and character development (several of which The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum rightly pointed out in her review) because I’m so enthralled by the look and pace of the thing. Put differently, The Knick has made me into a formalist, which is to say I just want to revel in the ways that the cinematography, score, and editing give the show a pulse that its writing might not.
AW: We tend to talk about TV as a writer’s medium, but lately there have been shows like True Detective and the British Southcliffe (a gorgeous downer of a miniseries which just popped up on Netflix) that have been more interesting to me in how they’re directed, their look and feel, rather than their dialogue and plot. And after watching the seven episodes of The Knick that were given to the press, I felt like there easily could have been an alternate-universe version directed in a more staid way that would have felt like any other costume drama. Instead, we have this thing that I’m also a little giddy about — this bright, vital, and sometimes breathtakingly pitiless surgical saga.
AHP: What I like about the cinematography isn’t that it’s beautiful — although it is! — so much as it’s unexpected, not just for television, but for any medium. Soderbergh has always been invested in usurping expectations — Oh, you like this weird, sultry movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape? I’ll spend the next decade ramping up the esoterica so high that no one will see my movies! — both in terms of content and form. He plays with the blockbuster, the art film, the indie no-budget film, the genre film, and now the television series with equal delight.
AW: And he turns their conventions inside out so effortlessly — The Knick did make me think of Contagion, his global epidemic thriller from 2011, which used the celebrity of some of its cast members to absolutely unsettle you about who you’d expect would survive. That movie gave us the sight, early on, of Gwyneth Paltrow’s famous blonde head of hair being peeled off and the folding over of her face in an autopsy scene. It was a brutally effective shorthand for the virus being unconcerned with who’s pretty, who’s nice, who’s a parent, and who might look like a main character who’ll live happily ever after. The first scene of surgery in The Knick showcases the same indifference to identity — mortality can come for anyone.
AHP: And he uses silence so well! And sound design! Soderbergh is one of the few directors for whom I’ll tolerate the “auteur” label, in part because he not only directs most of the time, but also serves as the director of photography (under a pseudonym) and often contributes to the screenplay as well (although less so in recent years). But part of what we’ve come to think of as “Soderbergh style” (or, more appropriately, the “Soderbergh mode”, which he applies to different genres) is his consistent collaboration with various artists — actors (Matt Damon, George Clooney) and people like Cliff Martinez, who scored almost all of Soderbergh’s films through 2002’s Solaris, and, more recently, was responsible for the sonic feel of Drive and Spring Breakers. I can’t say enough about how Martinez’s score animates The Knick: It gives it propulsive energy, and helps tie scenes with wildly different tones (the operating theater, the opium den, the Victorian street corner) into a cohesive narrative whole. You can get a sense of it in the preview below.
Video available at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=r_xvw-_YJSo.
AW: And the score unites those scenes without ever feeling like it’s pushing you toward a particular emotion. The general sensibility of The Knick, for me, ends up being one of a jittery morning after staying up all night — it’s a little addled, a little punch-drunk, like its drug-addicted protagonist, but also consumed with the always urgent events of the moment, and the score does a lot to maintain that feel of forward motion, of characters who never really pause or have moments of peace (at least ones that aren’t chemically enabled). You mentioned silence, and the first episode begins with a surgery scene that’s deliberately unaccompanied by the sounds of anything other than the equipment and brusque comments of the doctors working on a pregnant woman, allowing nothing to soften the scene as it unfolds in real time. One minute, everyone’s crisp and tense and she’s alive, the next they’re bloody and disheartened and (SPOILER ALERT) she’s dead.
AHP: And can we talk about the editing?! This show loves to tempt you with the promise of a big, gory surgery that promises to redeem everyone involved…and then it cuts immediately to the stunned aftermath. My favorite instance of this happens about halfway through the season, and it’s stunning in its selfishness: The ability to show exactly what happened without showing anything at all.
AW: Yes! I love the ways in which it doesn’t always need to follow through the procedures. It makes its point about the inexactness of early medicine quickly, and the scenes in which we actually see surgery are unflinching reminders that people are meat, fragile flesh and blood and bone that the doctors are still learning their way around, despite their public certainty and airs of authority. The edits are sometimes even harsher in their ability to hammer home how often these medical ventures fail.
AHP: I think this brings us back to the anachronistic “feel” you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation. The editing is so crisp, even jarring; the editors take a cue from Girls in the way they just flash the name of the series on the screen, often after a particularly tense moment, in lieu of a credit sequence. (This trailer uses a similar tactic.)
AW: Well, they may be living in turn-of-the-century New York, but Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) and his crew represent the cutting edge of medicine in their era, so that crispness suits their attitude if not the setting. But can we talk about Thackery? I think Owen’s terrific in this role — he’s awful and brilliant and cranky and attractive despite/because of these things. He’s a great surgeon, and he’s also terrifying, not nearly as in control as he appears to most of his colleagues.
AHP: First off, I love thinking of these surgeons, and Thackery in particular, as the ER bossmen of the age. I think Hollywood’s tendency is to shoot anything historical through gauzy lenses, and The Knick is one of the first shows I’ve seen since Deadwood (and Mad Men) to render history in a way that has a pulse while refusing to romanticize or fetishize. Thackery is, in many ways, the latest in the long lineage of flawed white men to dominate the “quality” television landscape, and I admit that some of his lines are, well, bombastic. But damn if Owen doesn’t have the charisma — so much more so than any of the actors playing the megalomaniac surgeons of ER, Chicago Hope, or Grey’s Anatomy. He has the outsize presence of a movie star, which is exactly what a surgeon should feel like on the screen: like he’s about to burn through it.
AW: He is in some ways a standard cable-drama type — the Asshole Genius, the character who’s great at his job and whose personal time is spent in the opium dens and brothels of Chinatown. But Owen brings an incandescent quality to Thackery that makes you absolutely believe he’d be worshipped and accommodated in most of his impatient demands, at least in the halls of The Knickerbocker. His not unjustified faith that they’re making great strides in the name of medicine and science does something to balance out the fact that those advances are being made with what are essentially on-the-fly experiments on whatever patient happens to come in with the right ailment.
AHP: It also explains why the women — or at least most of them — would be in thrall to him. That sort of confidence and brilliance is sexy. But I love how The Knick has shaped the burgeoning relationship(s) and their payoffs, in part because those payoffs are filmed in such an untraditional style. Without giving too much away, I will say that there’s a scene that echoes the famous flashback in 2002’s Unfaithful, and it is HOTT (and yet another example of the show’s innovative, not-always-linear editing structure).
AW: That scene is hot(t), and still managed to fill me with dread, because some people, no matter how magnetic, are really not the types a gal can count on having a healthy relationship with. Somehow, the slow shift in the platonic pairing of Thackery and Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), the black physician the hospital hires against Thackery’s wishes (he sneers at the hospital benefactors’ “progressive” leanings), comes across as the more stable courtship. They’re both driven and innovative and ferocious in their dedication to their profession, and they instantly dislike one another in a way that promises they’ll someday work together like gangbusters. Edwards may be the more intriguing character to me in the long run, as much as I like Thackery— there’s something so pointed about the way Edwards soldiers grimly through the various race-based indignities he faces, and how his resentments end up getting expressed.
AHP: I do think that the representation of the opium den frequented by Thack — and the Chinese prostitutes that inhabit it and, at one point, become party to Thackery’s experiments — is, to use a grad-school word, problematic. Granted, running opium dens and working as a prostitute were a few of the only viable “careers” for Chinese-Americans, but give these characters something resembling a personality to accompany their cooing placation.
AW: See, that didn’t bother me as much as Thackery’s inconsistent attitudes toward race. He begins the series by rejecting Edwards based on the color of his skin and the fact that patients won’t want to be treated by him, but later, it doesn’t seem to be an issue. I feel like the show would be stronger if it just let him be a period-worthy racist rather than have him be anachronistically forward-thinking when the occasion calls for it.
AHP: Really excellent point. Is he color-blind (the type of guy who only sees talent and potential, not race) or is he a bigot (and subject to the ideological imperatives of his time)? I mean, wouldn’t he be both, depending on his needs? I hope we see more of that negotiation manifest itself — and offer implicit comment on the way similar scenarios endure today.
AW: It’s a trap period shows do fall into when depicting all, er, less-than-pleasant attitudes of the past of all sorts — Hey, conveniently, even though the rest of the city is fractured along lines of race and class, the main characters don’t seem touched by these ingrained historical prejudices because Likability! But when The Knick does get to delve into those realities of life in the city, whether through the social limbo in which Edwards exists, or the day-to-day of David Fierro’s unflappable health inspector character, or the limits to the freedom Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) is given in her dealings with the hospital, it sings.
AHP: So we’re agreed: This show is definitely worth watching. I, for one, would recommend sticking through the first four episodes as it begins to accelerate until all hell breaks lose in Episode 7, which felt like the teapot boiling over. Now I feel bewitched by it and can’t wait to rewatch so I can be even more attentive to the specific ways the formal elements (direction, editing, score, sound) influence and amplify the narrative. Also: Give me Clive Owen’s busted face — tiny mustache and all — all day, every day.
AW: He makes looking like a hot mess look…hot. And I can’t wait to rewatch the start of this season myself — it has a fleetness to it that seems like it’ll reward second looks, especially in the episode you mentioned, when every relationship is giving a good shake-up. The Knick’s already been renewed for a second season, so there’s a lot more disturbing vintage surgery to look forward to next year. Whatever retirement means to Steven Soderbergh, it certainly doesn’t seem to have slowed him down.