Last week Friday, Cinemax's new series "The Knick" premiered to raving critical reviews, heralding in the series cinematic direction and style as a groundbreaking new take on period drama. However, many reviews also also have found the show's narrative and characters the same drivel we've been watching for years in period drama, and offers no new incite on racial development, gender roles, and providing a interesting story not centered around "glamorizing" our racist, arrogant, almost can-do-no-wrong Protagonist. Essentially this show, like many male centered period dramas, uses the date as a fallback/ excuse for the current state of diversity in its series. However, despite this narrative issue, does "The Knick" and its cinema prowess still present compelling and engaging content? The Answer is yes, here is why:
Establshing a Setting
Unlike many period pieces, set in the or around the turn of the 19th century, The Knick has the difficult challenge of establishing the metropolitan hub of NYC as the setting of it's series. This is strong contrast series like AMC's "Hell on Wheels" or Starz's "Black Sails" which rely very heavily on their locations in the frontier/ the fringe of society to help develop and establish that specific world of the past. Even HBO's and Scorsase's "Boardwalk Empire" rarely visit exterior NYC during the 1920's, because the established and relevant world crated is the "fringe" locales of gangster run Chicago and, of course, the colorful and corrupt Atlantic City Boardwalk. In short it is easy to use artistic, yet generic, shots when establishing the setting is such contained locales: rail road town, pirate town, gangster town, etc.
I've often credited Scorsase with bringing a "Gangs of New York" aesthetic to "Boardwalk Empire." Watching The Pilot, which he directed, it is clear that the two share a similar style for establishing period. Scorsase enjoys artistic sweeps over architecture and established space, gently and colorfully welcoming you to world of he has now established. A few precisely filmed long takes display a sea faces, activities, all masterfully centred around the focal point of the setting: The Boardwalk, Mickey's Club, or (in "GNY") The Five Points help the audience separate themselves from whats on screen, and establishes a theatrical "window to the past." And although not as artistically done, both "Hell on Wheels" and "Black Sails" spend a painstaking amount of time establishing setting, and take every chance have to do so.
Soderbergh doesn't let the jungle, that is turn of the century New York City, be the focal point of setting, but instead, like a modern medical drama, makes the Hospital important. Who cares that "Grey's Anatomy" is in Seattle (no offense WA friends), the importance is the Hospital. Scorsase's style feels very deliberate from viewers standpoint, by contrast the opening sequence of "The Knick" creates a very voyeuristic feeling. The audience is given clues to period, based on dress, the fact Clive Owen is in a horse drawn carriage, but never much time is spent looking around this old New York as this carriage carries our protagonist to the hospital. Glances and quick moments are all audience get, because Soderbergh establishes the attention around the people, especially the view of Clive Owen, Dr. Thackeray.
In the sequence features a dead horse, the working class, grime, and crime however, all at a glance. Instead the camera draws attention towards Dr. Thackeray's state of mind, his shoes, his drug use, and of course his EYES. In away the ignoring of a traditional style establishment has helped draw the audiences attention immediately into the mind of Dr. Thackeray. Period is still established, the times and all its horrors, but its shown at a glance because that is how the protagonist sees it.
Of course neither style is superior to the other, but Soderbergh is playing with a modern idea when it comes to establishing the setting and focal point in a period drama. And the result is somewhat mesmerizing.
Sounds and Score of the Past
Where I have previously praised "Boardwalk Empire" for its use of great period music and sounds, I must also give high praise to "The Knick" for somewhat of the very opposite. Be it big band sounds of the 20's, the thwang and tang of the banjo, or mandolin and harpsichord, musical scoring instantly transports its listeners into the past. "Black Sails," "Boardwalk Empire," and "Hell on Wheels" all heavily rely on that "traditional" scoring that reflect not just the music of the time, but also meet, previously established, viewer expectations (cue asian theme). Although often times weaker period incarnations tend to cheapen these sounds; I often praises composer for being able to make something recognizable, but reflecting typically the darker themes of the series.
It is almost hard not get lost is the past, with those type of scores; theatrically and fantastically illuminating the setting of their story. However, this again attests to period and place being the most important focal points of the story. Listen to very modern, minimalist, synth heavy score of "The Knick". Once again this beautifully establishes that our characters, more specifically Dr. Thackeray are the subjects that are most vital to the story. It connects the audience more to their psych and the rawer emotions/ atmosphere of the scene. The argument could be made that more medical dramas need this type soundtrack, but perhaps then they would potentially be to nihilistic to watch.
This departure from traditional is absolutely mesmerizing, and my ears lit up immediately when the music came on. There is a growing potential to make period drama's less setting driven and centered and potentially very psychological. For more on this see Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen's interview with Cliff Martinez, the composer for all the scoring: Hypnotic Show on Television
The Arrogant Bastard
Well all shows do have some short-comings, and in this case its the series protagonist Dr. Thackeray (Clive Owen). Don't get me wrong Clive Owen gives a great performance, and the doctors arrogance, well and drug abuse-genius, is what makes him an interesting character. HOWEVER, there are ALOT of arrogant white men on television, who we are supposed to care about. Many of them are the leading men of period drama.
Arrogant Bastard #1
Arrogant Bastard #2
Arrogant Bastard #3
Arrogant Bastard #4
I think it's safe to say that the current of quality period drama has, well, an arrogant bastard problem of the white male variety. I like these characters a lot, but I do see that unfortunately for all the unique brilliance Soderbergh's brought to television with "The Knick" his narrative is run of the mill. Despite this flaw, his characters are fascinating, well acted, and colorful. This is more a sign that we need to take a different approach to period Television. I believe "Masters of Sex" (haven't seen it yet) has been praised for its lack of arrogant bastards, we are compelled to invest in. Make no mistake arrogant bastards are great characters, they just shouldn't be the main protagonist for the period shows of EVERY NETWORK.
My Verdict is Yes a Thousand Times Yes.
"The Knick" is hands down the best, and most compelling period drama on television right now. Will reach the level of "Mad Men," too soon to say, most likely no, due the brutal nature of certain scenes. However, this show is absolutely mesmerizing, and so far both episode one and two have been fantastic. Season two has already been green lit, and the television and film community can look forward to a lot more from this series.