As comfortable playing with the stars of Ocean’s Eleven and Traffic as he is in the arthouse trenches that raised him up, Soderbergh is Hollywood’s inveterate craftsman, reworking and tinkering with genre machinery until it unmistakably bears his signature. With The Knick, Soderbergh is working in a medical field he’s explored recently in Side Effects and Contagion, but as both a procedural, and a period piece of this particular period, it’s uncharted territory. While the opening shot of the series -in which an unseen man and bare-breasted women lounge in an opium den, one that’s lit like the inside of an orange plastic pill bottle- makes you instantly aware that this is both a Soderbergh joint and a cable drama, you’ll know The Knick is a different breed of program (if not medical show) by the end of its first setpiece.
As the brilliant (and brilliantly named) Dr. Jonathan Thackery, star Clive Owen is introduced shaking off an opiate-induced hangover in order to perform an emergency caesarean. With him to perform the operation is his mentor, Dr. Christenson (Matt Frewer), and the other assorted medical staff of New York’s Knickerbocker hospital. Also in attendance are dozens of finely-tailored gentlemen that form an audience, as The Knick‘s 1900 setting sees the doctors fighting to save lives in an operation theatre instead of an operation room. Thackery and his colleagues like to refer to their hospital as “the circus,” and the packed amphitheatre is their big top, as well as The Knick’s.
As the surgery gets underway, the period technology being employed provides a unique hook for the life-and-death high drama you’ve seen in every medical show from E.R. to House. The doctors make sure to sterilize their facial hair, but no one has yet thought to keep mouths or hands protected. An assisting surgeon vacuums up blood by vigorously cranking an apparatus that would make you think the baby is an endangered deep-sea diver of the era. A nurse passes oxygen to an intubated patient with measured steps on a bellows, while wearing the sort of puffy white coverings you expect to see on turkey legs.