Director/writer/producer/Dean Pelton lookalike Steven Soderbergh’s last foray into television, HBO’s TV movie Behind the Candelabra, went well. Like, 11-Emmys-and-two-Golden Globes well. So it was both unsurprising and glee-inducing when he announced in May of 2013 that he’d be helming “The Knick” for Cinemax.
Equal parts medical drama and period piece, the 10-episode first season takes place in New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital at the turn of the century (no, not that turn of the century—1900). Dr. John Thackery (played by Clive Owen) is the newly-appointed leader of the hospital’s surgery staff, battling cocaine and opium addiction while just as addicted to medical innovation and personal reputation.
If not for Mr. Soderbergh’s handle prominently featured on the show’s promotional material, this premise would reek of the desperation of so many shows making transparent attempts to recreate popular successes of both period pieces (Magic City and Pan Am come to mind, and make me shiver) and unnecessary gore strewn over half-finished musings of a dark antihero (looking at you, Low Winter Sun). Instead, Soderbergh’s presence makes this a must-watch; a new challenge for a director so low on challenges he’s mused about quitting the film production game in favor of an easel and paint palette. The director is on somewhat of a medical-related feature kick, shooting, since 2011, the Ebola outbreak prediction Contagion, the psychological Side Effects, and the study in male anatomy that is Magic Mike.
Owen’s presence is also enticing. The velvet-throated Brit hasn’t hit on an acclaimed role in some time (2006’s Children of Men, by my count), but consistently shines when paired with great directors: Mike Nichols in Closer, the Miller-Rodriguez-Tarantino team in Sin City, Spike Lee in Inside Man, and Alfonso Cuarón in Children of Men. Very good yet forgotten-about film actors tend to make strong leading men on TV; ask NBC how it feels about James Spader and The Blacklist.
But big-screen actors “relegating” themselves to television isn’t new. The fact that it’s no longer a step down from the movies is. The newish trend that The Knick does adhere to, however, is that of strong auteur voices making the jump from the big screen to the small. With movie production companies taking the “Go big or go tiny” mantra to heart, it’s left thoughtful visual storytellers, who often succeed in the “medium-sized” movie arena, out in the cold.
As a result, we have Jane Campion producing the stellar Top of the Lake for the Sundance Channel, and the Duplass brothers creating the upcoming Togetherness for HBO. Not only do these new showrunners get the opportunity to work in a medium quickly becoming more and more capable of telling complete, compelling stories to a more engaged audience, but they’re also, for the most part, unshackled by the grievances, notes, and outright creativity-draining “guidance” that are expected from movie studios; they get the one thing directors tend to crave, control of their creative environment.
That last point is perhaps the most encouraging for the success of The Knick. Its conception: fresh off his flirtation with retirement, Soderbergh read the pilot and deduced that if he weren’t to make the show, the second person to read the script would. His next call was to Owen, securing his interest and blessing before contacting HBO. The prime time cable behemoth must have been impressed with the director’s drive and vision, but this is a network that spends years developing its own series that still likely won’t see the light of day, so they pointed Soderbergh toward their sister network, Cinemax, who is both willing to take the risk of an auteur-driven series and eagerly seeking to draw more attention to its stellar-yet-overlooked series Banshee. The result? Soderbergh worked with the writers to complete the 10-episode first season arc, and the team filmed the entire thing in about 70 days throughout New York City, shooting every scene at once at each location, as a film would be shot, instead of episode by episode.
It will be interesting to see how the final product ends up comparing to its contemporaries. We’ve seen with HBO’s True Detective what a single director can do when given an entire season helming the camera, and Soderbergh is one of this generation’s best, with a forceful command of the lens and a style unique to him (although, judging by the trailers, the series seems to lack his signature yellow tint). For those trying to fill the Fall television void (The Leftovers might as well be named after those poor souls still clinging to the series’ potential), The Knick might be just what the doctor ordered. Check in with Pop Culture Spin every Saturday for recaps.