Friday, August 08, 2014

The Dark Side of Medicine: The Knick

After the success of a period piece like Mad Men, TV shows are turning more and more to the earlier twentieth century in which to set their series. Downton Abbey began in 1912 and is now in 1930 or something (and everyone has aged exactly three years). The Goldbergs and Halt and Catch Fire are both set in the ’80s. Boardwalk Empire plants us in the midst of Prohibition and the criminal element that arose as a result of it. Masters of Sex is set in the 1950s, at a time when the subtleties of sexual activity were still largely a mystery.

In each case, returning to a time that is in the past — but, importantly, the recent past — asks the viewer to not only marvel at all of the advancements we’ve made since the setting of the series, but to consider what hasn’t actually changed. In the case of Mad Men, which arguably does it the best, we are agog at the treatment of the women on the show, even as we watch them make leaps and bounds throughout the 1960s. And yet, we can’t help but admit that until women are paid equal to men, or offered the same opportunities everywhere, we can’t really cast any judgement.

In addition to the period pieces, we've seen a huge increase in recent years of movie stars moving to television, as if acknowledging that TV is where it's at. 

Welcome to this landscape a new series by Cinemax, The Knick (premiering tonight on HBO Canada at 11pm). Set in New York City in 1900, it looks at the lives of the doctors, nurses, administrators, and patrons of the Knickerbocker Hospital at the turn of the century. Along with making you eternally grateful that you were born more recently, and not having to endure surgery in a hospital that is still trying to figure out how to use electricity properly (and not being flummoxed by what we would consider rather routine procedures), Steven Soderbergh’s foray into television also offers a fascinating glimpse at what it was like running a hospital in those days. At its best, the world of medicine in 1900 was gruesome; at its worst, it was downright criminal. 

Has it really changed? 

On Nurse Jackie we watch Akalitus constantly juggling funds from one section of the ER to another as she tries to keep the hospital afloat; meanwhile the doctors are vying for PR positions as they promote the hospital, trying to lure patients over to All-Saints Hospital from the others. Similarly, administrators on The Knick are competing for dollars from local rich patrons who donate money and services to the hospital in exchange for favours from the place itself. And if you’ve ever thought a trip to the hospital in an ambulance is highway robbery when you receive the bill afterwards, just imagine ambulance drivers beating each other up with billy clubs to fight for the kickbacks they’ll get from the hospital if they’re the one making the delivery.

Clive Owen stars as Doctor Thackery, a man who, for reasons that will be apparent in the first 15 minutes of the premiere, finds himself Chief Surgeon of the hospital. Thackery is portrayed as a headstrong cocaine addict who wiles away his nights in opium dens, who is harsh with the nurses and a racist, intolerant ass — but he is also a brilliant surgeon who is willing to take the very risks that save lives. Yes, he’ll lose people along the way, as did his mentor, played by Matt Frewer (most recently of Orphan Black fame) but it’s these risks that created what we now know as modern medicine. Without these people, we wouldn’t have the medical breakthroughs we have today. He’s asked to choose his deputy, and he chooses the man he believes is obvious: the guy who’s been working alongside him for years. However, the philanthropic patrons who have just contributed electricity to the hospital (which is being installed throughout the first episode) have another idea. They want him to consider Doctor Algernon Edwards, a man who comes with remarkable credentials: a graduate of Harvard, working in the top hospitals in London and Paris. Thackery agrees to the meeting, but tells them up front he’s choosing the other guy. After all, if his CV is that impressive, why does he want a position as a Deputy Surgeon and not head?

It’s when Edwards shows up that we immediately see why. He is handsome, distinguished looking... and black. And the look on Thackery’s face when he first sees him immediately betrays his disgust and overt racism.

The Knick is a fascinating show, but I must warn you: it is NOT for the faint of heart. From the graphic stomach-turning surgery that opens the episode to the horrific abject racism, viewers will be as disgusted by this show as they are enthralled. I watched the premiere with two other people, and one of them left the room within the first 20 minutes.

I will assure you, however, that if you stick with it, you will be rewarded. Clive Owen is wonderful as Thackery, as is AndrĂ© Holland, who plays Edwards, and the aspect of the series I’m looking forward to the most will be the development of the relationship between these two. HBO sent out seven episodes as screeners, which is virtually unheard of, but they must have known that this is a show that, like Boardwalk Empire, has a slow build that rewards the viewers for making it all the way through. Every character seems to be harbouring a secret, from the squirrelly superintendent (played by Wolf of Wall Street's Jeremy Bobb) to the meek and quiet nurse from West Virginia (played with dark mystery by Eve Hewson, Bono’s daughter).

And, as with the best of the period TV shows, it forces us to look at ourselves and, amidst our horror at the words being flung at Edwards, admit that it’s not just on television where we’ve heard racial epithets being thrown around. Until we live in a society that treats everyone as an equal, here’s hoping that television series like these will continue to cast a spotlight on our present, by showing us the terrible injustices and mistakes of the past.


Page48 said...

Movie stars doing TV? Yeah, how about Halle Berry doing "Extant", not even on HBO, but on a network you can pick up with rabbit ears!

Just wait till Jennifer Garner (not seen on scripted TV since she was 12 years old) hears about this?

Fred said...

Nikki, as you point out all these shows about the recent past has caught the attention of viewers. When I was a kid, it was Golan and Globus films with Helena Bonham Carter, and on TV it was Masterpiece Theatre.

Now we in Canada are finding out online "past" in Murdock, which I admit is a great deal of fun seeing the modern world emerge from a dimly lit past of gas lamps and horse drawn carriages. Extant, which is also a fun show, works in reverse, showing the present among the future gizmos and gadgets we only dimly surmise today.

StellaB said...

Matt Frewer will always be from Max Headroom fame to me! (but also good in Orphan Black & Witches of East End)

Looking forward to your write-ups on this fascinating series Nikki!