As far as filmmakers go, there are few who can lay claim to a career that has been as prolific and diverse as Steven Soderbergh’s. From his first feature film sex, lies, and videotape (1989) to HBO Film’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelebra ( 2013 ), Soderbergh has tackled just about every genre that Hollywood has to offer. And as a director, producer, writer, cinematographer, and editor, he is truly cinema’s “jack of all trades”… and one of its masters as well.
However, these past few years, Soderbergh has been on a bit of a “health” kick in terms of the subject matter in his films. In 2011’s Contagion, Soderbergh gives the audience a nightmare scenario involving a deadly virus that strikes America. Through Soderbergh’s comprehensive directing style, we trace the virus from it’s initial creation, to its infection of “patient zero”, to the effect the virus has on and the government’s infrastructure, the Center of Disease Control’s efforts to combat it, and the eventual discovery of a vaccine. In 2013’s Side Effects, Soderbergh this time gives the audience a murder mystery, on one hand, and a serious study of the pervasiveness of prescription medication in our society on the other.
Now with the premiere of Cinemax channel’s new series The Knick, Soderbergh gives us a new medical drama. He could have given us a medical drama where the actors (most of them with underwear model looks) play medical residents with nicknames like “McDreamy”, who fall all over each other in a psychosexual frenzy in a pathetic and desperate grab at ratings. Instead, Soderbergh gives us a series that is not only the most comprehensive look at the healthcare system… but the beginnings of it. The Knick, set in the early 1900’s New York City, revolves around the fictional Knickerbocker Hospital. In this era, modern surgery (or how it will become known as) has reached a turning point. The chances of survival for patients on the operating table have increased with the development of techniques and surgical tools.
Actor-producer Clive Owen ( Sin City, Closer ) heads the cast as Dr. John Thackery, chief surgeon of the “Knick” (as it’s known). Thackery is a brilliant surgeon who thrives on the pressure in the operating theater, but is haunted by the memories of his best friend and former predecessor Dr. J.M. Christiansen (played by Max Headroom’s Matt Frewer). He also “self medicates” with frequent injections of cocaine for his “ups” and trips to Chinatown’s opium dens for his “downs”, a habit that comes to the attention of naive nurse Lucy Elkins (played by Eve Hewson) when she is forced to assist Thackery during one of his agonizing withdrawals.
Thackery’s main conflict comes not from the drugs, but a new doctor that the hospital’s benefactors have pressured him to place on staff. It is not the doctor’s credentials that are the source of friction, but the doctor’s skin color. Played by André Holland, Dr. Algernon Edwards is African-American. Edwards not only has to deal with the open hostility of the doctors he has to work alongside, but his prospective patients as well. This treatment is in direct contrast from the racial equality he has experienced in Europe. The height of this disrespect occurs when he is asked to merely consult on a medical procedure that he himself has developed, rather than given the privilege of “scrubbing in” along with the other surgeons. Yet, Edwards bears these trials for the chance to be at the forefront of medical innovation. Edwards also sees firsthand the treatment of the Knick’s minority patients, and he opens up a secret clinic in the Knick’s basement.
The attention to detail for this new series is staggering, to say the least. Though filmed on location in New York City, the production has transformed the various locales as to make them unrecognizable to the modern city dweller. This series also showcases the various medical technology of the times. To see characters pose in front of an x-ray machine without the precaution of wearing a lead apron, sounds a silent alarm in our modern knowledge of the harmful effects of the radiation from this device.
Where this series differs from others is in its depiction of the various occupations that make up a hospital’s function. From ambulance drivers, health code inspectors, to nurses, and surgeons, the writers of the Knick leave no stone unturned in the viewer’s curiosity as to how these professions evolved from their beginnings. My medical opinion? Take an hour Friday night and indulge in this fascinating new medical drama.
The Knick can be seen Fridays on Cinemax, check your local listings.