Medical dramas have been an essential ingredient of television almost from the medium's birth. What has changed over time is how raw and graphic these shows have become. If you were to look at an episode of Dr. Kildare or Ben Casey today, you would be surprised at how pristine and sterile it seemed.
But nothing you've seen on E.R., House, Grey's Anatomy, or Night Shift has prepared you for The Knick. The bandages are off, folks.
This new drama on Cinemax (Friday at 10 p.m.) is hard-core visceral. The 10-episode series stars Clive Owen (King Arthur) as a brilliant but volatile surgeon at Manhattan's Knickerbocker Hospital in the year 1900.
This is a time when sanitary was a relative term. The surgeons don't wear gloves or masks and there are no transfusions, so once you cut a patient open, you have to operate speedily before they bleed out. The failure rate of surgical procedures is staggering.
The scenes in the operating theater, which make up a significant portion of each episode, are so blood-soaked and gory, I strongly urge you to start fasting an hour before you plan on watching this show.
There is, for instance, a skin graft procedure that will test your gag reflex.
In that era, medicine really was theater. The doctors, narrating as they go along, are surrounded by risers on which students and spectators sit, raptly watching the action. It looks very much like The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic, the famous paintings by Philadelphia's Thomas Eakins.
How does a doctor maintain his self-respect when he is acting as a butcher at least as much as a healer?
In the case of Owen's Dr. John W. Thackery, with an overweening (and somewhat clinical) belief in progress. And with drugs. Lots of drugs.
Thackery (an unfortunate rhyme with quackery) is a veritable Nurse Jackie. He spends his nights in deep drowse in an opium den on Chinatown's Mott Street. Then he rallies for each operation by shooting up a solution of cocaine. He's such a junkie that the veins in his arms are collapsed, so he has to find other sites to inject himself.
All 10 episodes are immersively directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich), who enlisted in this project about the same time he announced he would be taking a sabbatical from directing feature films.
Soderbergh already has an Emmy for directing HBO's Beyond the Candelabra. He'd better make room for another.
That raises the question of why The Knick, dripping with prestige, is playing on Cinemax, HBO's skanky little stepsister, rather than on the main platform.
The historical re-creation in the series is excellent, at least the props, costumes, and interiors are. The Knick runs into problems on the sidewalks of New York, which at times look patently fake. In any event, it appears to be a series shot with incredible, painstaking care.
The cast includes Matt Frewer, Juliet Rylance, André Holland, Eve Hewson, Michael Angarano, Jeremy Bobb, Eric Johnson, and Chris Sullivan, who gives an indelible performance as Cleary, the knockabout ambulance driver.
According to The Knick there were no ambulance chasers in those days. The ambulances would chase you if they detected a sign of infirmity. It was a competitive, cutthroat racket where all that mattered was volume. The market was also booming for cadavers on which to conduct experiments.
Some of the supporting cast are simply not credible as people from more than a century ago. Then again, if thoroughly modern Steve Buscemi can play Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire all these years, period validity obviously doesn't count for much.
David Fierro sticks out here as an avaricious health inspector. His brazen venality is intended to provide comic relief, but Fierro is about as 19th century as an Xbox. Danny Hoch, on the other hand, is both convincing and amusing as scruffy gangster Bunky Collier.
The Knick captures an intriguing tension between staid decorum and spurting blood, between the Victorian and the ventral. It's one of the most ambitious series in recent memory, a rare show whose reach exceeds its grasp.
What it lacks is narrative momentum. You get case after case, punctuated by the advent of some exciting new innovation, like a primitive X-ray machine.
The series is exceedingly good at what it does, but that is not storytelling, which leaves The Knick in the curious position of being utterly absorbing without being particularly engaging.
And remember: no eating. Doctor's orders.
10 p.m. Friday on Cinemax