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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

New Cinemax show breaks boundaries

Published: September 12, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

Coked-up surgeons, rampant disease and eccentric and outdated surgical methods from the turn-of-the-century are highlighted in “The Knick,” Cinemax’s new series.

Steven Soderbergh is a visionary, and Clive Owen is transcendent. These two are the main forces behind the new series, which draws unsuspecting viewers back in time and engulfs them into a different world. Each 50-minute episode portrays the day-to-day lives of the staff in a New York City hospital, the eponymous Knickerbocker.

Owen stars as Dr. John Thackery, a revolutionary surgeon who is progressing the field while also maintaining a steady addiction to cocaine and heroin. The character is loosely based on the surgeon William Stewart Halsted, also a cocaine addict. Thackery, or Thack, as his colleagues call him, commands the surgical theater and does not let anyone get in his way. Imagine a more forward Frank Underwood with a better haircut and pencil moustache—someone who makes it known what he wants and when he wants it. The character himself is something to be witnessed, and Owen’s performance is award-worthy. Effortlessly injecting himself with a needle of liquid cocaine before heading into a Caesarian section in front of an audience of doctors, completely unfazed by the blood and flesh in front of him.

Soderbergh is a master craftsman when it comes to filming a scene as efficiently as possible while also gleaning the best visionary aspects from it. The visuals are crisp and grab the viewer’s attention right from the opening scene when Dr. Thackery takes off his white leather boot in the back of a carriage in order to find a vein in his toes.

The choices for the soundtrack have come out of left field. While one would expect a historical drama to include background music from the time period, the transitions and establishing shots are underwritten by futuristic techno beats scored by Cliff Martinez, who also worked on “Drive” and “Contagion.” Really, the soundtrack confuses the viewer in a good way as it sets the tension in scenes and sets an extremely eerie vibe over the characters as they deal with life and death.

Beyond the two main leads for the series, Andre Holland gives a breakout performance as Dr. Algernon Edwards. Introduced in the first episode as a replacement in the surgical ward for the recently deceased Dr. Jules Christiansen, his race comes into immediate question by Thack. Although he holds a degree from Harvard Medical School and trained with some of the greatest doctors in Europe, Edwards faces discrimination from his colleagues in the surgical ward as well as his patients who do not want to be treated by an African-American. He faces even more trouble when he returns home to the Tenderloin District, where the other African-Americans he lives with in a boarding house view him as uppity and pretentious due to his elevated vocabulary and his opulent attire. These conflicts with other black people lead to a different side of Edwards that isn’t seen at the Knick, one where he is violent and forceful as he is quick to defend himself.

Themes such as racism, the extreme difficulty of surgery in 1900, high mortality rates and unethical practices will continue to draw viewers in future episodes. There is so much for Soderbergh and Owen to explore. Additionally, Thack’s addiction, after the first four of 10 produced episodes, is at a point where it is evident that it will cause his downfall, unless he goes through the withdrawals of breaking away from cocaine. It is this conflict that is the primary engine for the entire series, whether it’s Thack shooting up with some cocaine in his office or waking up in a opium shooting gallery in Chinatown. Eventually his problem will be found out, and if he doesn’t die from an overdose, he will certainly lose his credibility and job.