Period medical drama The Knick begins tonight on Sky Atlantic, and despite receiving little in the way of fanfare, it is one of the best new US imports to hit these shores for years.
Set in 1900, the show weaves its narrative around the personal and professional lives of a small team operating (at times quite literally) within the corridors of New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital.
Leading the way is Dr. John Thackery, a brilliant surgeon carving out a reputation as a pioneer of modern medical procedure. Problem is, he’s also a functioning drug addict, self-medicating on cocaine to get through the often extremely bloody rigours of what was still quite rudimentary surgery, then smoking opium to chase away the demons clawing at the very essence of his soul.
Add in themes of abortion, corruption, contagion, inequality, women’s rights and racism into the mix, and you have one of the headiest cocktails television has ever served.
So here are a five reasons why, metaphorically speaking, you should tilt your head back, open wide and let The Knick’s harsh yet hypnotic embrace flow through right through you:
1. Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackery
While Benedict Cumberbatch may have taken his crown as the nation’s favourite actor, Clive Owen remains a virtuoso of the craft. Playing such a conflicted, flawed character as Thackery – a whirlwind of maniacal, cocaine-fuelled inspiration one minute, a cowed, reality-bitten mess the next – might have caused less skilled performers to over-compensate. Not Owen – the camera could focus solely on his deep, magnetic, expressive eyes and they alone would tell us everything we need to know about this troubled man.
2. The genius of Steven Soderbergh
Even as an Oscar-winner, director Steven Soderbergh never really seemed well placed amongst the Hollywood rat race. Apart from the Ocean’s Eleven franchise, he just wasn’t interested in playing the game, so much so that he announced his retirement from film-making last year. Cinema’s loss is certainly television’s gain, as Soderbergh brings his uniquely filtered vision to the vice and viscera of early twentieth century New York. At times hazy and dreamlike, at others stark and sobering, it is nothing quite like the small screen has ever offered.
3. Bono’s talented daughter, Eve Hewson
Still hate the U2 front man for foisting his band’s latest album on you via iTunes? Well, by way of recompense, behold Eve Hewson, daughter of Paul (aka Bono), in the role of young nurse Lucy Elkins. Her beautifully restrained performance provides a beacon of humanity amid an otherwise sea of callousness – until, that is, she comes under the influence of Thackery. The Knick offers some substantial female characters, but be warned: it pulls no punches with its depiction of their struggle in a world even more chauvinist and misogynistic than it is today.
4. A pulsing electronic score by Cliff Martinez
This might be a period drama, but if you’re expecting a sweeping, classical score to accompany, think again. Instead, the very first thing we hear is the pulsing bass and arpeggiated synths of a modern, electronic score by Cliff Martinez, the composer whose music has soundtracked films including Drive, Only God Forgives and Traffic. At first it seems like Soderbergh is being provocative for the sake of provocation by creating such dissonance between sound and image. But gradually, as the score works its way under your skin, you realise precisely why it works. For this isn’t an idealised, nostalgic version of the past, this is the past as present: dangerously real and unforgivingly urgent for all who inhabited it.
5. It will really, really make you appreciate modern medicine
Although the scenes of surgical operations only account for part of The Knick’s overall impact, they are the ones that will stick longest in the mind of anyone even vaguely squeamish. It is, after all, set in an era where electricity was considered a modern marvel and death during childbirth was not uncommon. Soderbergh’s camera never flinches as Thackery’s scalpel, saw and retractors pierce his patients’ flesh, while the resultant gush of blood is drawn away by hand-powered suction. As Soderbergh told The Daily Telegraph recently: “I want people to feel: ‘Thank God, I don’t live in New York in 1900.’” Mission accomplished, we’d say.
The Knick begins tonight at 9pm on Sky Atlantic
Follow Nick Norton on Twitter @OnlyForKoolKids