Daily | Steven Soderbergh’s THE KNICK

The Knick

‘The Knick’

A few days ago, I highlighted Andrew Romano‘s excellent interview with Steven Soderbergh for the Daily Beast. What I neglected to mention is that Romano calls The Knick, premiering tomorrow on Cinemax, “the smartest, headiest, and most brutal show of the summer.”

As we’ll see in a moment, most agree—but not everyone. The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum, for example: “Set in New York at the turn of the twentieth century, The Knick, which was written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, is about the Knickerbocker, a hospital that treats the city’s poorest immigrants, with a board of directors made up of wealthy philanthropists. At the Knick, a brilliant, drug-addicted, brothel-frequenting doctor—John Thackery, played by a beetle-browed Clive Owen—is poised to push modern medicine forward, from C-sections to skin grafts. The surgical-history material is rich stuff, but the series itself is dour and hokey, full of stock characters and eye-rolling exposition. Designed to flatter rather than to challenge the viewer, it’s proof that even an ambitious director can’t overcome a blinkered script.”

But at Slant, Chuck Bowen finds the show “exhilaratingly alien…. The Knick is informed by a hypnotic sense of old newness that’s reminiscent of Deadwood. Soderbergh conjures a past era and parallels to present-day United States in a tour of a still-relevant caste system that allows the audience to sort out the contemporary resonances for itself. There’s a great feeling of discovery to the series.”

It’s “far and away the best thing Cinemax has ever produced,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz for New York. “The Knick is not merely set in the past; it’s a statement about the past, and a warning about how the past can reclaim the present if we’re not careful. Servants and masters (literal and figurative) are everywhere. Power dynamics are in the foreground of each scene…. The Knick treats the politically progressive instinct as a humanistic light source, guiding previously marginalized people out of the gloom, and implicitly warns that without eternal vigilance, we could easily return to the dark days.”

“It’s a period drama that never forgets that its characters are on the cusp of their own dizzying future of scientific and cultural change, and it presents them like people who are living in their own present, not someone else’s past,” writes Time‘s James Poniewozik. And nearly everyone mentions “Cliff Martinez’s gorgeous score–not tinkly ragtime piano but spare, haunting, ambient electronica. It’s anachronistic, but to a point, and it’s damned effective.”

The Knick arrives in an era where the possibilities for television drama are as limitless as they were for medicine in 1900,” writes Alan Sepinwall at HitFix. “It’s an era of constant surprise and innovation, where the best shows appear in the unlikeliest of places (Orange Is the New Black on Netflix, Rectify on Sundance, or Amazon’s upcoming Transparent) or in the unlikeliest of forms (FX’s Louie as a stealth contender for the best drama on television)…. In a time of abundant greatness, [The Knick] is very good—and gorgeously shot—but it’s not as revolutionary as the men and women whose work it depicts.” And by the way: “Soderbergh directed all 10 episodes this season—in addition to serving as his own editor and director of photography, under his usual pseudonyms—and has said he will do so again next year.”

The Knick isn’t the future,” agrees Sam Adams. “But it makes you fell pretty good about the present.” And he’s collected links to and quotes from further reviews at Criticwire. Let’s also note that 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.” In the New York Times, Jennifer Schussler talks with Soderbergh, Owen and others working on the show. More interviews with Soderbergh and his cast and crew: Daniel Fienberg (HitFix) and Ben Travers (Indiewire).

Update: For Willa Paskin, writing at Slate, The Knick “is supremely, impressively attentive to aesthetic questions that television often ignores. Simultaneously, it is indifferent to advancing long-running TV themes, conversations, and ideas. It is, as an aesthetic object, outstanding; as a medical drama, satisfying; and, as a piece of art, totally disappointing.”

Updates, 8/8: “That Soderbergh is assuming behind-the-camera duties for an entire television season should be front-page news, given that there’s no precedent for an Academy Award-winning filmmaker signing on to such a small-screen commitment,” writes Nick Schager for Complex. “The fact that it’s not being greeted with stunned disbelief, however, says much about TV’s escalating transformation into a veritable auteurland where acclaimed directors go for complex projects and creative freedom.”

The Knick is unusual and very good,” writes Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times. “Medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy revel in the latest advances in science, seducing viewers with state-of-the-art equipment and techniques that are as dazzling as the dashing brain surgeons and dedicated emergency room physicians who rely on them. The Knick boldly glories in the backwardness of turn-of-the-century medicine—and gushes of blood, bursting sutures and crusty infections.”

“None of this is done with the wink-nudge of historical irony that can be endemic to period dramas,” writes Esther Breger for the New Republic. “However distant its subject, The Knick feels astonishingly alive—more of the Sherlock school of olde times than the Downton Abbey one…. The material, though drawn from a hundred years earlier, feels fresh: Racism, class, and xenophobia all subtly inflect the plot. Thackery is dour, but the series never is.”

“What is accurate, and what is exaggerated on The Knick?” asks Boer Deng in Slate. “I consulted several medical historians and papers to find out.”

Updates, 8/9: Steve Greene introduces the result of a new poll: “The Knick as an opportunity to ask the members of our Criticwire Network which films, performances and moments they found to be most praiseworthy.”

The Knick “is a show that demands patience, and rewards it,” writes Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey. “Soderbergh puts his narrative on a slow simmer, and it takes several episodes to come to a full, rolling boil—and when it does, it’s brilliant television.”

Mary Kaye Schilling talks with Soderbergh for Vulture.

Update, 8/10: “I share my colleague Emily Nussbaum’s disappointment,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “Even so, the surgical-history material is so strong, so important, so resonant, so extraordinarily conceived and executed, that it carries a viewer—carried me, at least—eagerly through the series. It’s a pleasure to praise a television show rather than bury it, though it’s hard to avoid saying that the delight of The Knick, the way in which it differs from other series, is that its virtues owe almost nothing to its characters; it’s good despite its characters.”

Updates, 8/23: From Amy Taubin, writing for Artforum: “Soderbergh is a chilly director—that’s a description, not a criticism—but his empathy with Thackery, whose mind is on fire even as the rest of him is a mess, turns The Knick into a hot show, or at least a constantly simmering one that boils over at least once or twice in every episode.”

“What is race doing in The Knick?” asks Sarah Mesle in the Los Angeles Review of Books. ‘And what is The Knick doing with racial violence? In the last week, America’s ugly racial history has erupted into a display of public horror. There’s no way Steven Soderbergh could have known that his show, which focuses partly on the African American experience of race, would play out against an unfolding real world moment that is forcing us all to ask what racial violence means. But it’s impossible not to place the two stories next to each other: one, a historicized fantasy of (among other narratives) black suffering; the other, an ongoing horror of lived racial oppression forced, through brutality, to the surface of everyone’s Twitter feed.”

Niles Schwartz for L’étoile: “Soderbergh, with Vertov flowing somewhere in his veins, understands how form generates content and that the form/content dichotomy is possibly an impediment for the developing possibilities of filmic language, in the digital realm or in the booming complex of this ‘Golden Age of Television.’ Soderbergh is arranging an uneasy discord between the smooth conventions of a TV medical drama and the medium’s formal dynamics.”

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