Sunday, August 10, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: The Knick

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Fridays at 10:00 PM on Cinemax

There's no doubt that television is a writer's medium.  We tend to talk about episodes at a script level, and shows are known for their showrunner and writing staff, not their stable of directors.  It's notable, then, that the buzz surrounding The Knick involved Steven Soderbergh's work behind the camera.  Of course, it's not the first time a big director has lent their talents to a TV show -- think Martin Scorsese's work on the pilot of Boardwalk Empire or David Slade's time on Hannibal.  But Soderbergh's ties to The Knick are different and exciting for two main reasons.  The first is that he directed and edited every single episode of the season, instead of just the usual pilot job that these noteworthy directors do.  More importantly, he does more than just make the show "look pretty."

Take the surgery at the beginning of the episode for instance.  It's an intense, precise scene that looks great, but conveys meaning in a crucial way.  The Knick is a gnarly show, and if the idea of graphic guts and gore makes you nauseous, then you'd do best to check out.  But if you tune in, you'll see that the opening scene, and the show by proxy, is giving you a close-up look at the way surgery worked back in the early 1900s.  It's as illuminating as it is disgusting.  Soderbergh is able put forth ideas visually without relying on the script, just through choices with blocking, composition, and camera movement.  You can tell so much about the balance of power by the way characters are oriented on the screen in one scene; in another, the camera rotates perspective to communicate a shift in that power.  Throughout the hour, the show is always reminding you that it's being controlled by a master.

That directorial strength is invaluable, because it isn't breaking any new ground storywise.  The pilot is basically a greatest hits collection of brooding drama tropes.  Main character Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) is a brilliant surgeon at the New York Knickerbocker Hospital, but here's the catch: he's nursing a horrible cocaine and opium addiction.  Not only does the episode check off the "great man hiding a dark secret" box, but he's also stubborn and plays by his own rules, as we see him butting heads with his superiors when he's given more responsibility after the death of his mentor.  Elsewhere, you can see the DNA of Peggy Olson and Virginia Johnson in Algernon (Andre Holland), an African American surgeon who's brought on to the hospital staff against John's wishes.  It'll be interesting to see whether the writers can find new shades to the story of a member of an oppressed group fighting against adversity to prove their worth, because it's as common as they come with period pieces.

Part of the reason why none of this feels like a complete carbon copy of previous dramas is because of Soderbergh's direction.  It can't be emphasized enough how much his work enhances the pilot, where he does his best to make the story not feel stale and suffocating.  And he succeeds, because it's a thrilling, intriguing, artistically satisfying introduction.  This is not a case of style over substance, but style adding substance.  The Knick may be playing the hits, but it plays them extremely well.

Grade: A-


  1. So I just realized that Leftovers is ending this weekend and Newsroom isn't coming back until November and I was thinking "what is HBO using to cover this space?"

    I kind of want to go into this blind and you seemed to love it so I'm going to give this a shot (I'm near the end of Season 1 of The Americans at the moment).

    Especially since Clive Owens is in this!

    1. Actually The Knick is a Cinemax show (which is owned by HBO, who sometimes shows repeats of it. So that's why you might've thought this was an HBO show). The final season of Boardwalk Empire is what's going to air before The Newsroom returns.

      Speaking of The Leftovers, you still haven't commented on my pilot review of that. Or the rest of my posts. You were supposed to catch up on reading them before the summer ended and now there's no hope lol.

    2. Also it's kind of crazy how good this summer has been. The Knick is solid, Outlander has so far lived up to the strength of the pilot, You're the Worst is slowly becoming great, season 2 of Masters of Sex delivered one of the best episodes of the year a few weeks ago, season 2 of Rectify was amazing, Nathan For You is still god's gift to comedy, etc. Too much TV!

    3. Oh wow, ok. I thought it was HBO because I saw it on HBO Go. And yeah I should've known that, with the ton of Boardwalk Empire ads I've scene before Leftovers.

      Well there technically is hope since this is a 3-day weekend...

      Season 2 of Rectify was great, I have yet to see any of the others (I'm meaning to check out Nathan For You soon, I'm still on The Americans)

    4. Part of the reason why it's taken me so long is that I had an AMV to finish (using the rebuild films for Evangelion and Adele's Skyfall) for Professional Awards at Anime Weekend Atlanta (which I'll be going to for the first time next month).

      The other reason is I started an internship at NexGen Global Technologies a couple weeks ago, so a lot of my free time went out the window (even though I'm only taking Computer Architecture and Intro to Web-Based Technology before I graduate in December).