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'The Knick': Ushering in TV’s Director’s Age
October 17, 2014  | By Eric Gould  | 1 comment
 

If you’re like us at TVWW, you’ve probably been watching the extraordinary first season of The Knick in a typical posture – that is, peeping through the fingers of your hand over your eyes as you make your way through another grisly turn-of-the-20th-century surgery technique that hasn't turned out so well for the patient (er, victim) involved.

The Knick, finishing up its first season tonight on Cinemax (10 p.m. ET Friday, Oct. 17), has been graphic, violent and grim in its depiction of early 20th century New York City. Like all good period pieces, it’s made a fascinating collision of old world technology with the new as they morph and twist each other into the thing we know today as modern medicine. The infancy of modern surgery is bloody and palpable as Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen, top) has boldly attempted techniques at the fictional New York Knickerbocker Hospital where he is trying to conjure the future.

Along with the trail of bodies that Thackery has left eviscerated on his operating table (to be fair, he’s rescued his fair share, too) comes a hauntingly beautiful TV experience. The first 15 minutes of last week’s episode, “The Golden Lotus,” was some of the most evocative and painterly (top photo) I've seen in a while.

As visually good as Breaking Bad and Mad Men have been, they seem almost classically staged against The Knick, an historical piece, which has been rocking in a brash modernity. It’s reveled, mashing up neo-Victorian settings with unusual camera techniques and pulsing electronic musical accompaniment.

Part of The Knick's excellence comes from its singular directorial vision. With all ten episodes directed by Steven Soderbergh, The Knick has been an engaging journey into 10 hours of television emerging from one person’s vision.

Soderbergh’s film credits are as impressive as they are wide and varied. He’s done everything from art-house films (Sex, Lies and Videotape, winning at Cannes in 1989) to widely acclaimed social dramas (Traffic, 2000) and blockbusters (like the Ocean’s Eleven franchise, starting in 2001).

Long-form television with film directors at the helm is not new, with many miniseries to cite, such as last year’s Top of the Lake from Jane Campion. (It just got the nod for a second season on Sundance.) More recently, Cary Joji Fukunaga directed the entire 10-episode season of True Detective, winning the Emmy award for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series. And nothing can be said on the subject without adding Alfred Hitchcock, who directed dozens of episodes of his TV anthology series in the 1950s and 1060s.

If you buy into the notion that The Sopranos ushered in a new golden age for television in 1999, bringing brooding antiheroes and long, novel-like arcs to weekly audiences, it’s arguable that shows like True Detective and The Knick are now ushering in long-form directorial models that are essentially extended films, under the creation of one vision.

That can mean only good news for TV audiences, bringing accomplished talents to our living rooms on a weekly basis. If you haven’t read it, Soderbergh’s virtually unedited interview with Andrew Romano of The Daily Beast is as fascinating as it is long. Published just before The Knick premiered in August, it’s a detailed look at how a seasoned director often doesn't know precisely what he’s after, but has enough trust in his process to deliver the true and essential elements of the particular project in which he’s embedded. It’s worthwhile going through Soderbergh’s entire, detailed ideas about filmmaking and television to arrive at the beautiful and jarring choices he’s made in fashioning the series.

In the case of The Knick, a harrowing portrait of Thackery’s cocaine addiction in a Jekyll and Hyde battle with his medical genius, the series has also gone into the shockingly ugly side of early twentieth century racism, back room abortions, free-market quackery and the rancid squalor of immigrant sprawl amongst the well-to-do of old New York.

In the hands of a director like Soderbergh, the grimness has a terrible beauty – and pleasure – all its own.

 
 
 
 
 
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1 Comments
 
 
Matthew
"the grimness has a terrible beauty – and pleasure – all its own."

Couldn't agree more. The characters can't escape the grim and the show pays special attention to it. Even Cornelia's bridal shower present is a carving from the tusk of an elephant killed on safari. Morbidly beautiful.
Oct 18, 2014   |  Reply
 
EG
Matthew - The bridal shower was just a shade livelier than a wake, with the lifestyle of the well-to-do more tightly wound than the elaborately tied dresses the characters wore. It was quietly done. And very disturbing. --EG
Oct 20, 2014
 
 
 
 
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