I’m 5 Years Late, but All I Want to Talk About Is The Knick
Cinemax’s best show just landed on HBO Max.
New York, the year is 1900, Dr. John "Thack" Thackery (Clive Owen) wears white clown shoes with everything and in turn convinces me that white clown shoes are very hot. Bodies are cut open; guts are (quite literally) spilled; syphilis is taking people's noses; opium dens are still a thing; eugenics is still a thing; ambulances are just wooden boxes on wheels and they are driven by Toby from This Is Us. I am intrigued; I am disgusted; I cannot look away.
It is 2021 and I am discovering The Knick, the best show of the 2010s, five years after it aired its final episode. Truly, I have no excuse. My mom has been steadily (apropos of absolutely nothing) telling me to watch this show since 2014. And I, a squeamish child, (repeatedly) told her that graphic experimental surgery scenes were not for me.
In January, I finally bit Cinemax's silver bullet and began my belated stream. Yes, there was blood (a lot of it), but the TV police won't charge you for looking away — and, weirdly, you do grow kind of numb to the gore after a few episodes. The Knick, so-named for the fictionalized Knickerbocker Hospital on Manhattan's Lower East Side, is also home to dynamic characters, fascinating medical discoveries, and some of the most authentic and transportive sets I've ever seen.
Make no mistake, this is a medical show. There are major arcs devoted to the development of what today we'd consider routine procedures (blood transfusions, appendectomies, C-sections), but this is no procedural drama. If anything, it's a captivating study in contrast. It's truly wild to see how far we've come. X-ray machines were the shiny new advancement of the future, and we were treating cocaine addiction with ... heroin? Though, I should warn you, the typhoid episodes will hit a little close to home amid the COVID-19 pandemic (which, cc: Texas, we are very much still in).
But, really, you don't need to spend your free time on WebMD to have an interest in this show. At its core it's a character drama. Thackery, the cocaine-addled heartbeat of the series, is a compelling antihero. He's at once a racist intravenous drug addict and a brilliant pioneering doctor and surgeon. In fact, the way the show crafts the perfect shade of gray to encompass one's contempt for some of Thackery's unsavory actions and investment in his work and personal growth is so well done that it can feel manipulative. I don't want to have a crush on a man bartering at his local opium den whilst he searches for a free vein between his toes, and yet …
After pressure from The Knick's Board of Directors, the hospital hires its first Black physician, Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland). Naturally, Edwards is met with opposition from … everyone. It's not a new or even surprising storyline, but it is unsettling how 120 years later the treatment of people of color in historically white spaces has not changed as dramatically as it needs to. Holland never disappoints, and his performance as the even-keeled though perpetually on-edge Edwards, biting his tongue in service of the greater good, is no exception.
Then there's Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), the naive Southern transplant finding her way in the city; Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), a nun and midwife who teams up with The Knick's ambulance coachman Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) for a dangerous after-hours project; Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), the clever and frequently underestimated daughter of the hospital's head of the Board of Directors, who in turn serves as the head of The Knick's social welfare office; Dr. Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano), a young and talented doctor whose father is skeptical of the hospital's experimental practices; and, the worst person in the world, Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) — you'll see what I mean.
When my Cinemax free trial ended, I did something I absolutely never do and spent a whole $10 on a 1 month extension. Of course, it was worth it, but I was upset by the show's lack of accessibility. As someone who has encouraged at least 10 people to watch this series with an abundance of "!!" emojis, I can tell you that the dearth of streaming platforms made it a hard sell. Luckily for everyone who is not me, The Knick recently landed on HBO Max — the "!!" emoji is running amok in my texts and slacks once more.
Despite the fact that The Knick's final episode aired during the Obama administration (Barack himself named it his favorite show in 2015), the Steven Soderbergh series is actually more relevant than ever. In September 2020, Soderbergh told The Playlist that Holland and Barry Jenkins were developing a reboot of sorts (third season? spin-off?) that I am prepared to — for lack of a better metaphor — inject directly into my veins.
So if you, like me, are on the hunt for your new favorite prestige drama, I'd recommend that you wait a couple hours after your last meal, secure your mom's friend's chiropractor's HBO Max password, and enjoy the very best in 2010s period dramas.