When it was originally on: 2014-2015
Original network: Cinemax (Yeah, they make originals. Who knew?)
Where you can stream it now: At the time of this writing, this first episode is available for free on Apple TV+, otherwise you’ll need a Cinemax subscription.
Had I seen it before: No.
What IMDb says: A look at the professional and personal lives of the staff at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital during the early part of the twentieth century.
Why I picked it: I initially heard about this show from some fellow writers, and probably never would’ve heard of it otherwise. (Did I mention it’s a Cinemax original?) Based on those recommendations, a desire to feature premium cable programming outside of HBO, and a 92% Rotten Tomato rating, The Knick seemed like a good candidate for the list.
I also just think the notion of a period medical drama is a damn good one. The medical drama is one of those staples of television that will always be with us, and there’s two other ones on The List, plus its comedic counterpart, Scrubs. The idea of setting one at some other point in history just seems like a no-brainer. The Knick is one of those “why did no one think of this sooner?” kinds of ideas and I’m excited by it.
What I liked: The Knick does a great job of sowing seeds that I want to see grow. I love Dr. Edwards, and he’s by far my favorite part of this pilot. From the second I realized that this 1900-set story was going to feature a black doctor trying to assert himself in a white hospital I was like “aw snap, I can’t wait to see where this goes.” We also learn that the hospital is currently operating at a deficit and has been bribing ambulance drivers to bring patients there over other hospitals. Then there’s the fact that our lead doctor dude is also a cocaine addict. It’s definitely a pilot that puts some water on to boil and I can easily envision numerous ways for that water to bubble over.
The Knick is also a fantastic example of how period pieces can be great tools for exploring modern-day issues. Our characters discuss the fear of immigrants and what diseases they might bring into New York. We see how the need to make money is corrupting the healthcare system. And of course we see the racial tension between Thackery and Edwards. We see Thackery make familiar arguments like “well, I’m not racist, but our patients are, and we’re losing money, so therefore we can’t hire this perfectly capable black man.” And that’s all in just the pilot. I’m interested to see how the show builds upon these conflicts and what other kinds of issues they might explore through this 1900 NYC lens.
What I didn’t like: The complete asshole protagonist that people have to put up with because he’s also a genius feels like a played-out archetype to me. I’m over it. On the flip side, we get Nurse Lucy. She’s sweet, innocent, and inexperienced. We’re supposed to feel sorry for her, and maybe even like her. But it’s her mistakes and inexperience that lead to grave complications for one patient. When she’s sent to go find Thackery she doesn’t even think to ask for his address until a smart doctor man tells her. She’s not necessarily dumb but she is in over her head and she sure as hell doesn’t come off as smart.
Fun fact: being smart and being nice are not mutually exclusive. They are both incredibly desirable qualities in human beings, and I think each and every one of us should strive to become a little bit smarter and a little bit nicer than we were the day before. So my patience grows rather thin whenever media tries to do this whole “smart people are abrasive and antisocial while nice, likable people are dumb” thing. It’s a trope that dates back to at least 1887 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes novel, but possibly even further than that.
Typically the only way these types of asshole genius leading men work is by balancing them out with super nice, sympathetic, reasonably intelligent people that I can also get invested in. I tolerate Rick because I like Morty. I feel like The Knick makes a half-hearted attempt at this by way of Dr. Edwards. He’s really the only character here that’s both intelligent and sympathetic, but the pilot doesn’t put nearly as much energy into developing him as I wish it had.
I think it could be incredibly powerful to explore how Edwards HAS to be a nice, upstanding gentleman precisely because he’s black, but Thackery’s whiteness allows him to get away with being a drug addict who’s mean to everybody and people still laud his ability as a surgeon. If that’s the direction this show is going, we only see tiny glimmers of it in the pilot. Those glimmers are a lot more interesting than Nurse Lucy’s screwups, and I wish we could’ve gotten more of that conflict instead of me just crossing my fingers and hoping the show eventually gets to it.
This is also NOT a pilot for the faint of heart. The surgery scenes are graphic. I don’t think of myself as someone who’s particularly squeamish when it comes to these matters but holy shit. I don’t need to see human bodies overflowing with blood. I don’t need to see a blockage in some dude’s intestine. And it’s 1900, so the doctors don’t even wear gloves through all this OMG IT’S SO DISGUSTING I CAN’T EVEN. It’s all done in this “just because we’re Cinemax” sort of way without enhancing or supporting the story. I would argue it hinders it, because when I’m watching these surgery scenes I really can’t keep up with the doctors deliberating about how to handle the challenges of this surgery since I’m focused on how I don’t want to see the shots that are in front of me. All the interesting things this show is doing would be totally possible without these shots, but no. It’s Cinemax so you gotta sit through a pregnant lady being cut open within the first five minutes.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: I’d be willing to give this a few more chances based largely on Dr. Edwards. If the show fleshes him out and makes him more of a proper lead character, it might work. But if the next couple episodes are as focused on Thackery as this one was, I’m out.