While the first season of The Knick sometimes settled for being just a deliciously dark take on the Medical Genius drama, unlikely relationships like Harriet and Cleary’s were a nugget of sweetness amidst the surrounding, beautiful rot. Such unexpected connections are all the more important as The Knick enlarges its stethoscope, monitoring not just the heart of New York’s medical community, but the city itself. Much of the season deals with Barrow’s (Jeremy Bobb) unscrupulous means of getting a new hospital built uptown, but it’s the people inside The Knick that make it less a place of business than it is a connecting terminal for the period’s technology, class structure, gender politics, and racial identity. Their destination? The future.
As with the previous season, The Knick’s writing remains its Achilles heel, but that’s all relative: any spry and sturdy heel would look weak when attached to a form as striking and personal as Soderbergh’s. Whether cribbing himself from earlier films (a flirtatious exchange in the fourth episode plays with time and space even more wildly than a similar scene from Out of Sight), or employing virtuoso-for-the-medium camera angles and take lengths, Soderbergh’s work behind the screen never fails to mesmerize. Comparing him to a tireless maestro like Thackery was last year’s easy analogy, but this time, Thack’s rival, Dr. Zinberg (Michael Nathanson), could be mistaken for the Soderbergh insert. “There is thought in everything he does. He’s a very deliberate man,” says Genevieve Everidge (Arielle Goldman), a Jewish journalist reporting from a Christian man’s world.
Yet, a glimpse under the tent reveals Soderbergh’s direction as being just as much a creation of chaotic TV production as it is intelligent design. Those of an auteurist faith will look for order and reason in every shot and angle, but like any good revival preacher, it’s Soderbergh’s mastery of his chosen language that makes the improvised seem purposeful. Stimulating, though it might be, to look for Soderbergh’s touch on every aspect and decision of the show, it’s a limiting window through which to view The Knick’s full suite of pleasures.
Amiel and Begler, who script the first four episodes, will occasionally carve subtext with a cleaver when a scalpel would do (one of the characters Barrow’s embezzlement gets him mixed up with is named James Fester), but their plotting has only become sharper since last year. The cast, featuring some of the year’s most engaging performances in Holland and Seymour, is among television’s finest, and most finely dressed (between the premiere and Crimson Peak, tomorrow is a great day for late-Victorian aesthetic treats you’ll have to admire through knit fingers). And maybe it’s the withdrawal talking, but the fresh batch of Cliff Martinez compositions on The Knick’s soundtrack are the show’s most potent yet, a systole/diastole pattern of adrenalized electronic uppers and mellow, guitar-driven downers.
The series still relishes all things bloody and vomit inducing (an abscess draining in the premiere might ruin nacho cheese for you), and the deeper The Knick probes into the corrupted organs powering New York, the bleaker its worldview can seem. But there’s grace to the series that extends beyond just the gymnastics of Soderbergh’s camerawork, the warmth of his lighting, or the trickery of his editing. Season 1 demonstrated that Thackery was merely the ringleader of the circus, not its sole attraction, and season 2 of The Knick looks to make Soderbergh’s talent as clear as the fact that this isn’t just a one-man show.
Assuming there are no serious future complications, The Knick is already well on its way to being one of the year’s best TV shows.