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Knick, Knack, Paddy Whack, Give the Doc a Smack: Cinemax’s THE KNICK

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Cinemax’s newest series The Knick, created by Steven Soderbergh, and starring Clive Owen, began its first episode with a graphic intensity that stunned many viewers. Subsequent episodes have promised many conflicts in the premise of a (fictionalized) privately funded Knickerbocker Hospital, located in one of the poorer neighborhoods of 1900s New York, while its philanthropist sponsors force Chief Surgeon John Thackeray (Clive Owen) to “integrate” the staff by hiring an eminently trained black surgeon Algernon Edwards (André Holland) as his Assistant Chief Surgeon. Though the show still has some weaknesses so far, its strengths make it one of the best dramas in years, setting it right next to the debut season of HBOs True Detective and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful with its writing, acting, and setting.

Warning: Spoilers Abound

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Weaknesses

  • Some of the “injustices” and inequalities suffered by black Assistant Chief Surgeon Dr. Edwards are simply fictionally unbelievable, given the show’s premise. Yes, the show is set only 35 years after the Civil War, and racism is rampant. (That still hasn’t changed in this country.) But to have Dr. Edwards’ office in the windowless basement and not have his egregiously wealthy sponsor’s daughter Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) complain vociferously about it and insist that he be given a proper office is simply not realistic. After all, if the Robertson family stopped installing the electricity when Thackeray didn’t want to hire Edwards in the first place,  she would not allow him to be in the basement with the coal-men without getting angry about it. Seems odd that Dr. Edwards tolerates that arrangement, too.

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  • While several of the other characters, including minor ones, are being developed, the “star” surgeon, Dr. Thackeray remains relatively one-dimensional. Okay, so he had a past love interest. He uses cocaine and opium, both of which were legal at the time. He’s sarcastic and impatient. Other than that, however, he’s one of the least rounded characters in the show, and that’s just downright disappointing. We never see him anywhere except in the hospital and in the opium den, whereas we know more about the Hospital Director Barrow (Jeremy Bobb)’s private life than we do about Dr. Thackeray’s.

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  • Additionally, Dr. Thackeray is so addicted to cocaine that all his veins in his arms, feet, and ankles have collapsed, forcing him to inject the drug between his toes (except for the episode 1 scene where Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) injects it, under his instructions, into his urethral artery), and he seems to go to Chinatown to the opium den every night after his shift, yet he’s still highly functional. And he has too much weight on him: an addict using as much cocaine as Thackeray is supposedly using would have no appetite and would lose a noticeable amount of weight. (Even alcoholics lose so much weight that they look like AIDS victims.) Thackeray doesn’t even have dark circles under his eyes. His hair’s never even messed up, though he seems to come directly to work from the opium den, and return there right after work.

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  • Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) is even less developed than Thackeray, though episode 4 began foreshadowing her love interest in him (or, rather, in her romanticized vision of him, since he was pretty brutal to her in episode 1). Granted, she’s one of the minor characters thus far, but some of the other minor characters, like Sr. Harriet (Cara Seymour) and ambulance driver Cleary (Chris Sullivan), are being intensely developed. Why not this nurse, who seems to be the only one at the Knick with a name?
  • Some of the contrasts between poor/wealthy, white/black in episode 2 were too heavy-handed. Dr. Edwards living in a tenement or a hotel of some sort where everyone shares the same bathroom, for example, while his own mother and father — servants of the hospital’s sponsor, shipping tycoon Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines) — live at his mansion was ludicrous. What, they can’t pay this brilliant surgeon trained in the finest European institutes enough of a salary that he could have his own apartment? Setting his morning routine with a bunch of ruffians spoiling for a fight with a black man in “Paris shoes” against Cornelia’s pampered, affluent one was an insult to viewers.

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  • Hair and makeup can’t seem to decide if Dr. Thackeray has straight, black hair, or wavy/curly dark brown hair. Maybe this seems really picky, but it’s distracting, and anything that distracts a viewer from the story pulls him out of its fictional world.

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Strengths

  • The show’s handling of racism is mostly spot-on. Except for the heavy-handed scenes mentioned earlier, the racism is subtle and constant. Captain August Robertson tells a guest at Cornelia’s engagement party that Dr. Edwards is the “finest Negro surgeon” in the city. Mrs. Robertson greets Edwards at that party, then asks, “Are you here to see your mother [the Cook]? She’s in the back.” Some characters won’t shake hands with him. Thackeray tolerates — and even jokes about it — when Edwards’ major antagonist, Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) sucker-punches him during a life-and-death surgical procedure. Dr. Gallinger tells his wife that the hospital staff’s “nickname” for Edwards is “Dr. Darkie” and she giggles before saying that it’s not appropriate/professional/nice, her laugh belying her spoken objection. Those subtle presentations of racism are very effective, as are actor André Holland’s facial expressions when they happen.

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  • Thackeray’s constant sarcasm as well as his incredibly high opinion of himself. It seems like such a character should be obnoxious, but Clive Owen pulls it off in every single scene. He even makes the character amusing. Good acting at its best.

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  • The nature, relationship, and conflicts between Sr. Harriet (Cara Seymour) and ambulance driver Cleary (Chris Sullivan) are some of the strongest in the show. These two minor characters are heading for Best Supporting Actor Awards, that’s how powerful their performances are. Humorous, angry, mocking, and suspicious colleagues turned unwilling allies, the two have progressed from a playful teasing relationship to a coercive one involving extortion and dangerous secrets. The first time Cleary addressed Sr. Harriet as “Harry,” I laughed aloud while, at the same time, knowing that something very bad was about to happen.

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  • The special effects. The pigs Dr. Thackeray and others practice surgical procedures on because the Knicks’ Director Barrow is stealing bodies to sell them to other institutions. Beating hearts during open-heart surgery. Patients catching fire after electricity is installed and used during surgery for the first time. Thackeray putting his hands into a woman’s abdomen in an attempt to retrieve her unborn child which has migrated outside the ruptured uterus. Thackeray massaging a dead woman’s heart by putting his bare hands inside her chest cavity, which he has cut open after her death for this express experiment, to test his theory about its causing a pulse. The former lover of Dr. Thackeray who contracted syphilis from her husband and has no nose. All of it is just gory and realistic and gruesome and makes me really grateful I’m not a surgical patient at the Knick in 1900.

  • The research behind the show, which includes actual archival photos of rare and deforming medical conditions (which Cleary is  joking about as the other doctors are breaking-and-entering in order to steal a journal from a surgeon to learn a new procedure rather than ask the black surgeon Edwards about it).

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  • Dr. Edwards finally became a man who stood his ground in episode 4, earning the beginning of Thackeray’s grudging albeit mocking respect, when Dr. Edwards refused to “talk the surgeons through” the next step in a heart aneurysm-repair procedure, which he’d helped pioneer.
  • The original music. Electronic and eerie and compelling.

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  • The set, inside and outside the hospital,  including the rat-baiting scene in the basement of the bar. Very impressive. As good as the show’s special effects.

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  • The doctors’ shoes. Those have to be historically accurate. Otherwise, they’d be too bizarre to be realistic. And Dr. Thackeray mostly wears his without socks, so he can inject the cocaine between his toes more quickly.
  • The hint of an attraction and a possible relationship between wealthy tycoon Captain August Robertson’s daughter Cornelia and the “best Negro doctor” in the city. Oh, please, oh, please, oh, please… Let’s be really brave.

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If you aren’t watching Cinemax’s The Knick (new episodes Fridays 8p.m. ET, with reruns all week long), you’re missing one of the finest and most compelling dramas since HBOs Deadwood.

And that show can’t be beat.

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DEADWOOD Strikes Gold! Again! Still!

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#No Spoilers

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of its award-winning  & critically acclaimed series Deadwood, HBO had a marathon of all 3 seasons (36 episodes) on a weekend in March, and weeknights in April and May. Though we have the DVD collection, I hadn’t watched it since it originally aired from 2004-2006. What a mistake. Viewing it again during April and May, I realized just how magnificent a show it is. Even 10 years later, it was as exciting and fresh as ever.

Created, produced, and mostly written by David Milch, Deadwood explores the growth of Deadwood SD in the 1870s, before and after its annexation by the Dakota Territory. Previously, Deadwood was on land ceded to the Native Americans, so whites were on it illegally; once gold was discovered in the Black Hills, however, whites went there in droves while the government turned its back on any treaty violations.

The Cast & Characters

Great cast playing fascinating characters, some of whom were really in Deadwood SD, make Deadwood a standout series. The fictional characters are mixed with historical ones: Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane),

Hardware-store owner & Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant, L) and his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes, R),

Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine),

and Calamity Jane (Robin Wiegert)

are just a few of the historical personages who interact with fictional ones in this great drama.

Most of the cast members have gone on to star in other important series and films. Dayton Callie, who plays Charlie Utter,

stars in Sons of Anarchy, Timothy Olyphant in Justified, Paula Malcolmson, who plays Trixie the whore, stars in Ray Donovan as his wife,

and Anna Gunn, who plays Seth’s wife Martha, went on to star  in Breaking Bad as Skyler.

Some cast members were stars when they arrived, like Ian McShane as Al Swearengen — creator David Milch has said he wrote the character with McShane in mind — Powers Boothe as rival saloon/brothel owner Cy Tolliver,

Gerald McRaney as George Hearst,

Brad Dourif as Doc Cochran,

and William Sanderson, in the best role he’s ever had, as scheming sycophant E. B. Farnum,

while Deadwood propelled others to international celebrity status. The cast alone makes the show worth watching. I can’t think of another series, besides The Tudors, that consistently had such a stellar cast, all with outstanding performances.

Integration of Dramatic Elements

So many writers and shows fail because the dialogue, character development, and action are all presented as separate entities. Long monologues interrupt action. Character studies could be entirely eliminated or replaced by commercial breaks without losing anything. Not so in Deadwood, where the language and character development are not only integral to the action, but where the action itself evolves from the language and the characters themselves.

This scene, where Gem Saloon owner and brothel-master Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) insults Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Bullock) who is married (his wife hasn’t arrived yet) but is sexually involved with widowed Alma Garrett (fictional), whose gold-claim Al Swearengen covets, vividly demonstrates the integration of all three elements: dialogue, character development, and action (plot). When Al Insults Bullock.

Warning: Language

The Language & Writing

Yes, there’s lots of obscenity on Deadwood, but there’s also language so poetic, it sounds like some of the best Shakespearean lines ever written. And the actors say it all so naturally. I guess that’s just what really good actors do. Still, the writing itself does allow the actors to ascend to the realm of poetry, even when they’re arguing. This clip contains a montage, and the first four minutes are mostly funny because it’s so many of the characters cussing, but then you get to see the poetry and beauty of the language in Deadwood.

Warning: Language

The Humor

Even in its most serious situations, Deadwood was filled with humor. Some of it made me laugh aloud, the first time I viewed it, and during the 10th anniversary marathon. I honestly don’t know how some of the actors did their lines without laughing through the entire scenes. This one, where Chinese “Boss” Mr Wu (Leone Young) is attempting to tell Al Swearengen, whom Wu calls “Swi-jen,” is one of the classics. Wu tells Al about the “CockSuckas.”

Warning: Language

The show was cancelled far too early — after its third season — when, clearly, future seasons were planned by the creator/writer David Milch and by the actors. HBO gives various reasons for the cancellation, the most oft-cited  is that “Deadwood, as a costume-drama, was too expensive to produce.” Ian McShane was known to respond to that by saying that his character wore the same suit and long underwear through all 3 seasons, while his whores wore basically nothing at all.

Bravo, Ian, for showing such a ridiculous cancellation of a fine series for what it was: A mistake. One which HBO still regrets.

As for me, I’m not waiting another 10 years to watch the entire series again. It’s going to become an annual ritual, at the very least. After all, I have the boxed-set of the DVDs.

Even if I didn’t, I could watch the entire series free on either HBO-Now or on Amazon Prime.

Being able to watch the magnificent series Deadwood any time I want makes either subscription worth its price.

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