Film Crit Hulk SMASH: THE KNICK - TV’s Unsung Masterpiece

An look into the best-crafted show on TV.

NOTE: I've talked about all this before, but you've probably noticed that I haven't really written about Steven Soderbergh. That's because, in the critical world, I stay away from anyone I've worked for/with/know, etc. And Soderbergh happens to be the person who gave me my first job in this town, to which I am indebted. So please consider everything that follows and everything I ever say about his work to be laced with an impossible amount of bias. The only thing I can really hope to offer is... a kind of insight from that experience? I can't say for certain what value this will have to you, if any, but that's the honest context, so please take it for what you will.

Especially because bias-be-known, I think that he's one of the smartest, clearest, and most-efficient filmmakers on the planet.

I know some people have problems with what they'll call his "colder" style, but I often feel the opposite in most of his work. He's made films that are the epitome of fun (Ocean's 11) humane (Erin Brokovich) cool (Out of Sight) hot and progressive (Magic Mike XXL - which he half made) delightfully weird (The Informant!) gritty (The Limey) powerful (Traffic) kick ass (Haywire) trashy (Side Effects) hilarious (Behind The Candelabra) and inherently terrifying (Contagion). I actually think this "colder" opinion comes from the fact that he has a reserved, less-in-your face touch that combines with the fac that he has also made a number of colder, more cerebral films (Kafka, Solaris, The Girlfriend Experience, etc) along with films that ended up in middle zones that are tough to classify (The Good German, Che). But this just shows how he frequently risks relative ideas of success, all because he's never lost his interest in pushing the bounds of experimentation (Schizopolis, Full Frontal). Heck, he was calling for films to be day and date release on multiple platforms well over a decade ago (Bubble). The lesson from all this is that he's been a filmmaker who isn't always interested in turning his films into some transcendent pop epic. Instead, I'd argue that with very few exceptions, he's always made the movie he wanted to make and done so effectively. And I don't know how many filmmakers I can say that about.  

But this "making the movie you want to make" mantra gets to the core notion of, believe it or not, the fiscal responsibility of making movies and understanding their appeal. Unlike the attitude of a lot of other filmmakers who will happily blow 200 million dollars on some dream like grandeur, he once said point blank "it's not our money." And with that he understands the scope of what films can and will achieve. To paraphrase, he once said "the mistake of The Good German was that I thought it was a 30 million dollar movie, not an 8 million dollar movie, which is what it should of been." This anecdote highlights a deep awareness of both purpose and audience, something that comes across in spades in his incredible talks on the industry. For there are few filmmakers as insightful, honest, and thoughtful in interviews. To me, it all adds up to something fascinating. I'm not sure everyone loves Soderbergh the same way I do, but I can't think of anyone who doesn't respect him. And when all the attractive-to-the-populace pieces really come together in his work, there are few filmmakers more engaging. Which brings us to the current subject:

I'm convinced The Knick is his masterpiece.

There's a lot of talk about peak TV and whatever the hell that means. I'm pretty sure that just means there's a lot of great television and it's hard to keep up with all of it. But when it comes to the distinction of The Knick, I'm hard-pressed to think of anything quite like it. It's not just the fascinating subject matter of an New York City hospital in 1902. And it's not just the brilliant, sharp as hell writing that ranks among television's best. It's the good fortune of cohesive guidance. Seriously, a director of this caliber coming in to handle every single frame of the show? I feel like we got a taste of that in Cary Fukunaga's wrangling of the first season of True Detective, but he's more of an up and coming exploratory visualist, and with Soderbergh we're talking about one of the best directors on the planet tackling a 20 hour story. And what a story it is (to be clear, Soderbergh had no interest in doing it until he read it. And then it was all he wanted to do). And I never would have thought that 1902 New York surgery would be the perfect marriage of his style and material, but I'm hard pressed to think of a period piece that feels this immediate and yet still completely of its era. To say "it is the most fundamentally sound TV show ever when it comes to use of cinematic language" is as big an understatement as you can make. And each season, while not exactly typical "serialized" television, sets out to tell a singular story, a complete thought. With all of this in mind, you realize that what makes the The Knick so revelatory...

It is a masterpiece of craft.

Heck, it's almost ruthlessly efficient. Every damn scene moves something in the story and characterization forward without it ever once being "plotty". It wholly understands the power of transitions. The Knick might have eight of the ten funniest cuts in television history and eight of the ten most devastating (but this is Soderbergh's greatest skill). It knows how to tell whole stories in looks and glances (like the expression on Gallinger's face when he's been gone for only a short while and comes back to see that Thackery and Algie are acting all buddy buddy). It has an almost uncanny understanding of how to dole out character information over time, constantly, but gently shifting your sense of empathy until you have a complete picture of who these characters are and can be. But what makes the show so damn compelling is its stalwart understanding of drama. For it wrings drama from every single aspect of the show, from the deeper matters of intrigue, to the large scale social issues, to the conflict-ridden relationships at the heart of all of it.

But best of all is the inherent drama of the setting itself. Not just with the tried-and-true "will they/won't they survive" drama mechanic that has been powering medical shows for the last 50 years, it's specifically watching them dive into the craziness of medicine in 1902 with reckless abandon. We sit there, mouth wide in terror, not knowing if these doctors are about to make some landmark discovery or a horrific error of assumption that will have disastrous consequences. I'm telling you, the terror of watching everyone play around with turn of the century x-ray machines, getting blasted by lethal radiation while smiling, is much more agonizing than you can imagine. And the pure execution level of the surgical scenes is sublime. Make no mistake, it is gruesome, but it is so plain-faced and realistic in its treatment of the gore. It fully understands you need to use these dire images carefully in the middle of a masterclass of tension and pacing to properly wrench the audience's gut. And boy do they wrench. There is even one scene so tense (hint: the eye one) that I shit you not I had to start hiding my face under the pillow and when it got to be too much I jumped behind the couch... Folks, I am normally a chill motherfucker. I can't remember the last time ANYTHING made me do that.

And if that weren't enough, the show is deeply meaningful to boot.

It takes place in 1902 and yet it has more honest things to say about America's relationship with race and feminism today than the sum total of studio films released last year. And instead of the Disneyfied treatment which is just designed to make white people feel good about overcoming something, it cuts to the bone. It understands the terror of a mob that doesn't even need to be faceless, but it also understands the terror of the handsome young doctor who is casually trying to legitimize the "scientific field" of eugenics (of course because a black surgeon is better than him at his job). And while it is constantly throwing the injustice back in our face, reminding us that we still aren't over the same exact bullshit, it also knows that it has to explore these issues through human relationships. It can never present solutions as being pat, but instead wires them right into the plot, obstacles, and drama of the story itself. Seriously, there isn't an indulgent note in the entire show. Every small step victory is one that should have been earned ten times over, and every failure crushingly moves us ten steps backward. It's as brilliant as it is true.

Man, I could go on and on...

So in case it's not clear, you should watch this show if you never have. Go out and do it as soon as possible. Buy it online, steam it, whatever. I promise it is worth it. And to those of you who have been lucky enough to see it, let's have a big spoilery conversation about what it's saying and the profound thoughts it has to offer.

* * *

The moment I knew this show was truly brilliant was actually a simple one: it was in watching Clive Owen ride a bike as he sings to himself. What may seem like just a nice character moment is instead, like everything in this smart-as-hell show, a moment that comes at a crucial time, narratively-speaking. We begin so much of the show with Doctor Thackery at a distance, ever the brilliant man with demons who is at the height of his high-functioning cocaine addiction. And while the loss of his mentor looms over him like a specter, here he suddenly finds more of a gentle state of balance. He is ever so slightly connecting with his humanity and his past. And so, after actually reciprocating a moment of kindness from a young nurse who likes him, he has this quiet moment to himself on a bicycle and sings. There's something Rosebudian to it, this steely-eyed figure with sharp claws, belying a deep sensitivity within. For he is capable of something child-like and gleeful. And the moment stands so clearly to me in understanding all the demons that were of course ready to rear their ugly head. It is the moment I still think about the most by the time it goes to his devastating end. And most of all it reveals that what makes Thackery so fucking compelling is the way you root for all of it, his success, his pushing the envelope, his cockiness, and for the small moments of his humanity and the deep redemption of his soul. But we can never have it all. Because these facilities all crash and maim each other as they very much would. For that is always the agony of being a person with demons. I don't know how else to say it, but...

Everything this show does is smarter than other shows.

Take the relationship between Algie and Thackery, which would for so many other shows would be the supreme lesson in people coming together. Thackery would be the "practical progressive" whose middle of the road racism is overcome when he ends up seeing what Algie can do. The story of course ends up being some small version of that, but one that never pulls a punch. The hoops Algie has to jump through to get there, and the added lumps he has to take in the process from Thackery are the kinds of "unlikable" gestures from a main character that few other shows would dare put on screen. He's often a monster to him, and the way it slides into seeing Algie as exceptional is so casually achieved and in the excitement of the scientific pursuit that it (powerfully) seems coincidental to the whole affair. It almost feels as if there is nothing learned. The racism never goes away. Instead, it plays right into every mis-step and success that the show has to offer. And that's the thing about racism of all kinds, it's always there, always hanging. He can never truly escape it. It's part of his life. And it's devastating.

With other shows I tend to forget the details. Evidence of the kind of dramatic pomp and circumstance that doesn't have much resonance behind it. But I actually finished The Knick months ago and remember everything. I remember the shape of execution. What with season one's tight layering of plot and characters, all crashing together into an exclamation point of an ending that could not have come about any other way (the second they checked him into the facility, I knew the heroin was coming. And so that scene ends up playing like perfect dread until the brilliant rack-focus reveal). But what's lovely about what these storytellers did is they had literally no interest in doing just another version of season one. It was "been there, done that." So in season two they completely broke apart the formula, got out of the hospital a lot, sent characters off in other directions, and went on their journeys. Even the style and treatment of time in the show got bolder and more overt. All of this would have killed other shows, but these were the same brilliant storytellers. So instead, The Knick just became a different kind of great. I especially think of that haunting moment, early in the season, when Thackery stood in front of the hospital boardroom and declared his mission: "I'm going to cure addiction!" It's the kind of dramatic irony that can only make you feel pained and helpless, watching a brilliant man not realize they're about to turn into Don Quixote.

It was a moment in a show defined by brilliant moments. I think about all of them. I think about the black patients getting snuck through the riots in the gurneys, Algie hiding underneath. I think of the way my mouth dropped and cackled the moment I learned what "the busy flea" meant. I think about the flirtatious ineptitude of Doctor Mays cascading into the sudden, horrific ether fire on his face, and then the hilarious smash cut to the discussion of what flowers will be at his funeral. It's the kind of comedy-drama tightrope walk that can only be made in a perfect series of edits (and for the perfect look into Soderbergh's editing awareness - along with his sense of honesty and humor in dealing with notes - please read this article with his complete list of editing notes for the entirety of season two. It's perfect). I think of the saddest moment of all, that would of course be Cleary's heartbreaking confession that he was the one who got Harriet turned in. It's a stunning kick in the gut, but it also illuminates a feeling of what we always knew to be true about his shifty character, but hoped it could never be true in something like this. And so we finally watch - what could have been - my favorite odd romantic duo come together, but now with a mix of horror and sadness. But what could be more profound than that endlessly complex set of emotions as a viewer? Hell, I think of the complexity of all these people. Even the sweetness of Bertie, a role Michael Angarnaro seems born for, is part of a fully-realized character with honest struggles and needs. But I also think about Eve Hewson's arc as Nurse Lucy, learning to take her hurt and wrestle power out of the corners of her position, to find her way out from under the men in her life, achieving so much and yet stepping into a bigger trap than she can ever realize. And then there is the incomparable Andre Holland, who we all got to know with Moonlight, wrestling the load of expectations and communicating intelligence and anguish and lust and fear and resolve and defeat, all with his eyes alone.

But most of all. I think about that ending.  

As devastating as it was, it was the perfect way to end the show. All in a way I could have never expected, nor would have even dreamed. For all the circus that was put on, The Knick was a show about how to treat human beings in every sense. From health, to status, to love, to ignorance, to respect. And for every innovation achieved, for every life saved, there will still be death, leaving only the echoes of how we treated those around us. Death will always defeat us. And so we must sit and wrestle the demons before our eyes, we must understand the ways we have to live with mental health, vice, and the morality of our choices. We must understand that these are the only things that might actually matter. As the central metaphor goes, there is no curing addiction, there is only treating it. And so there is only learning to live with it. Just as there is only living with ourselves. And so this entire idea gets expressed in that final scene - a deep moment of sadness and the quietest notion of resolve. A moment of two characters sitting together in a room, as one listens: 

"I have bad dreams."

"Tell me about them."

It is an exchange that means even more to me with every passing day. I'm left holding onto those scenes from the finale like I lived them. And when I make dumb declarations about the show being TV's unsung masterpiece, it is both reckoning with myself for how long it took me to watch it, but also knowing in my heart that this show is something undeniable. It doesn't really matter that The Knick came in a deeply complex and introspective part of my life, one where the notions of trying so damn hard, making mistakes, and facing demons, all fall by the wayside when we just watch. Because it is a show that engages existentialism not through being direct, but because it strips away the artifice of that very discussion. It is just the truth of our bodies. We are just sacks of meat. We can truly save nothing. Everything is fleeting. But it is only in that space that I am rushed with the most overwhelming sense of gratitude that I am here, along with the sterling reminder that we have to fight to be present.

Because this is all we are.