Slicing away at God’s Unbeatable Streak TV Review: "The Knick"

The Knick is a new Cinemax original series that tells the story of the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York circa 1900. The location is based on the real Knickerbocker Hospital, which was located in Harlem and closed its doors for good in 1979. In addition to a long run of financial difficulty, the hospital also had a history of poor race relations, demonstrating an unwillingness to sufficiently provide for the predominantly black community that surrounded it and a resistance to employing black doctors.

The “Knick,” as the hospital is called on the show, suffers from the same shortcomings, however Steven Soderbergh’s TV series is top-notch, from the cast to the writing to the direction.  Clive Owen, in the lead role, does a fantastic job portraying the cocaine-addicted Chief of Medicine, Dr. John Thackery. A renowned surgeon who is grandiose, pretentious, and battling his own demons, Thackery is an entertaining lead character to say the least. He is a man who seems as concerned with his reputation as he is with the patients whose outcomes affect it, and far less worried about the financial hole the hospital has found itself in.

[Spoiler alert: The following paragraph contains dramatic plot elements from Episode 1]

“Your God always wins. He has the longest unbeatable streak in the history of the world,” Thackery tells the mourners assembled for the funeral of his mentor and colleague, J.M. Christianson, who shoots himself in the first episode after the team fails to save a woman and her baby during an emergency C-section. Thackery characterizes he and his dead friend as comrades who “tilted at the same windmills” in “the battle to oppose the inevitable.” It’s a humanistic lauding of the power of human potential to prolong life. “Because the windmills at which we tilted were created by men to turn grindstones that transform the earth’s bounty into flower,” he declares. “From such humble beginnings grew the astonishing modern world in which we now live… a time of endless possibility.”

Thackery’s noble commitment to improving human life is juxtaposed with his theft of the hospital’s cocaine supply to support his enormous dependency and with his staunch racism. The latter comes to the fore when the Knick’s main benefactor, August Robertson (played by Grainger Hines), and his daughter Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) move to name Dr. Algernon Edwards as his deputy chief of medicine. Despite his talent and accomplishments—Edwards has published in leading medical journals and was a renowned surgeon in France before returning to New York—Thackery refuses to let him operate on patients because Edwards is black. André Holland does a wonderful job as the ever-challenged but committed Edwards. I am most excited to see how his story unfolds in this series.

Then we have Sister Harriet played by Cara Seymour. She is a witty, sharp-tongued nun who performs secret late-night abortions, obviously dedicated to humanity before her religion. In general, the hospital staff treats death as something far from sacred. Quickly we see how the industry operates around town, as ambulance drivers eager to make a hefty buck compete to deliver corpses to whichever research hospitals will pay the most. In some cases a dead body is more valuable than a living patient.

The show is certainly not for the faint of heart. Thackery absurdly refers to the operating theater as his circus tent, but many of the scenes put the viewer at eye level with the procedures taking place, from emergency C-sections, to skin grafts, to hernia repair. I’m normally not one to shy away from gruesome scenes but this show has me turning my head often.

Even so, The Knick is a quality historical drama that celebrates the human potential for improving lives but doesn’t shy away from our ability to also complicate and even destroy them.