Through its first five episodes, The Knick‘s most impressive feature is its presence. Not presence as in its charisma or stature, but presence, relevance.
Few television shows remind society of itself the way Steven Soderbergh does on Cinemax. The most obvious, pantheon-level example is Breaking Bad. A more recent one is FX’s The Bridge. But theirs is a presence with a laser focus on particular issues, respectively, the economic collapse and American immigration. The Knick‘s presence is much broader, constantly reminding viewers of the current state of affairs, despite its ironic setting (19oo). To find another show so topical and expertly crafted, one would have to time-travel back to Tony, Carmela, and the rest of The Sopranos.
In Episode 5—”They Capture the Heat”—alone, a one-percenter rants that giving bread and/or medical advice “to the unworthy (you can probably guess to whom he’s referring) is wrong” and “encourages irresponsibility and reckless use of valuable resources”; Herman Barrow laments to his favorite prostitute that Wall Street took his and others’ money, while Vanderbilt and his ilk continue to “sail on through, rich as ever”; August Robertson possesses both the ignorance to doubt his daughter’s capability based solely on her sex, and the foresight to note that the days of wealth originating from material gain are gone, shifting to the immaterial, like electricity, X-rays, the iPod nano, and the Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tube Man.
But no snippet of this episode reminded me more of today than the early going, when Bunky Collier resorts to the Knick after his stepbrother/underling gets a slug in the leg. There Bunky sits in the operating theater, watching John Thackery and Algernon Edwards go to work (of course, Bunky wouldn’t be a character on the show if he didn’t comment on the latter’s race first). Met with a unique hitch, Thackery’s solution is up for the task when Edwards is sure amputation is the only available resort. Yet Bunky slouches, fuming, ignorant—no, indifferent—to the miracle of modern advances, instead reaching for his gun and threatening to shoot all parties involved if everything doesn’t resolve exactly how is most convenient for him. I know how he feels, I’ve got Time Warner Cable.
One thing that doesn’t still hold true today? Sister Harriet’s advice to Tom Cleary. “You my friend aren’t following anything smart. Not until you acquire some fine manners, and learn to drive a motorized car, and dress presentably, and fuckin’ shave!” All that’s not really necessary any more. At least not in New York.