Cinemax's The Knick marked Steven Soderbergh's foray into long form television, as he directed all ten episodes of the first season, bringing with him his yellow-tinted look and slick style. Since television is a writer's medium above all though, I'm going to have to give most of the credit for this show (which I liked quite a lot) to the co-creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, who managed to put as new a spin on the "doctor" show as you've ever seen.
The Knick is set in New York City in the year 1900, at the Knickerbocker hospital where the staff deals with all the problems that the setting itself brings, which it turns out, is all the material you need for a compelling ensemble series. Right away you've got to know that there's a lot of blood on this show, and the kind that, for me anyway, is a lot more unsettling than the supernatural vampire tongues on something like The Strain (have you ever wanted to know what a late 19th century c-section looked like?) That in itself might be enough to put certain people off, but I'd advise against it, because with every episode you are pulled deeper and deeper into this world that now looks like another universe when you're faced with all the technological advances we've made in a relatively short amount of time. The sets, cinematography, costumes and yes, Soderbergh's direction, do work to create a gritty period setting that you constantly want to spend more time in, even if you'd never want to see it in reality (I don't think there's anything else you could watch right now that'd make you more grateful to live in the present day).
With every medical case that checks into this hospital, it's astounding and cringe-inducing to see what practicing physicians actually did to treat diseases and conditions now commonly cured (from hernias and difficult pregnancies to drug addictions and blood transfusions), and Amiel and Begler did their research, drawing from real life occurrences and history to show us the tools and discoveries that were only just being made at the time. But no matter the setting, every series is ultimately made by its characters, and one of the things that I love about The Knick, is that this is a show made by people who for once, are actually more interested in the stories of those living in the 1800's who were not the majority. That's right, these guys want to tell stories about immigrants, women, African-Americans and Asians, people whose daily lives and prejudices were harder than most, and that's on top of living in a time where life was actually quite a struggle for everyone (sickness doesn't target the poor and disenfranchised- even the rich couldn't be saved from appendicitis when there was no doctor who knew how to treat it). Of course there are the straight, white, male doctors on the show (who would obviously be the ones in power in a hospital at that time), but there were also lots of other people moving around the fringes, and unlike a show like Mad Men, this is one that thinks their lives are just as interesting as everyone else's.
Clive Owen is the star as head doctor John Thackery, an ambitious physician with a dangerous cocaine addiction- dangerous on two levels, because he's physically unable to function without his daily dosage (this drug was injected in 1900). Owen is dominating and charismatic as usual in this performance, but his character is a bit of a jerk, and he's almost matched in screentime (I'd actually call him a co-lead) by Andre Holland, who's a major standout as Algernon Edwards, an educated black doctor who must learn to function in a near total white supremacist society that embodies not just the hospital but the outside world as well. It may actually be extremely frustrating as a modern viewer to see Edwards' dilemma as it progresses (you're tempted to hate every white person on the show), but it does progress and eventually you're as caught up with his story as much, if not more, than anyone's (he was probably my favorite character on a very strong ensemble). The cast is sprawling, but we're introduced to just about everyone almost instantly, and some of the other noteworthy characters include a nun who makes money on the side as a Vera Drake type of caretaker for women in need, the Irish "ambulance" (still a horse and carriage) driver who also skims on the side as a flat out criminal, Juliet Rylance as the upper class woman placed by her father in a man's position as owner of the hospital, and a young West Virginian nurse who falls into a dangerous infatuation of her own.
The manner in which the storylines move around among the large cast reminded me at first of a grittier Downton Abbey, but the show very quickly comes into its own and shows how occasionally familiar storylines and age old issues (drug addiction, interracial romance, abortion, mental illness) can suddenly seem fresh and new by being represented in a world that we can only imagine was like to actually live in. And watching this show, you'll never want to, but you will want to spend more time observing it, and I myself can't wait for the next season to have a chance to revisit.