Watching the Cinemax period drama “The Knick” is like being drugged, in a way, but not with a happy, lazy drug. It offers the kind of gripping trip to a time and place — New York in 1901 — that can be both stunningly beautiful and unnervingly ugly, that reveals big city architecture as both rows of proud stone giants and dank prisons whose back alleys swarm with rats. On “The Knick,” hospital surgeries quickly turn from ambitious new procedures led by hopeful and innovative doctors into eruptions of anarchy and organic matter — in one ooze-filled scene in the season premiere on Friday at 10 p.m., something akin to the Beatles’ “yellow matter custard.”
And remember: no gloves.
So, yes, “The Knick” is not for viewers looking for turn-of-the-century-America nostalgia, and you may need to watch some of the operating-theater scenes — usually a couple in every episode — through a finger mask. The grittiness and grotesquerie looks more like what we’ve come to expect from depictions of poverty in Dickensian England. But no, you shouldn’t miss “The Knick,” which is directed by Steven Soderbergh with unblinking realism and you-are-there artistry. Rarely do we see TV so thoroughly transporting, with endlessly inspired visual framing, masterful lighting, and writing — by series creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler — that refuses to soft-sell the past or simplify the people who inhabit it.
As season two begins, life remains complicated and largely joyless for the characters at the Knickerbocker Hospital, but most of all for Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery. When we last saw him, Thackery was going to be treated for his raging cocaine addiction with a new wonder drug from Bayer: heroin. That didn’t work very well, and he is now at a mental health facility counting the minutes until his next vial. Owen continues to give a fierce performance (even if some of his jonesing in the premiere is a little too “Valley of the Dolls”). He has both cerebral and visceral punch. He is the storm at the center of the show.
In Thackery’s absence, Dr. Algernon Edwards — beautifully played with sad-faced, suppressed internal conflict by Andre Holland — is the acting chief of surgery. As in season one, his position is challenged and ignored by colleagues who resent having a black person on staff, never mind leading them. Meanwhile, Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), the wealthy white woman with whom he had an affair and who had an abortion, has followed through with her planned marriage to Phillip (Tom Lipinski) and moved to San Francisco. Lucy (Eve Hewson), the Southern nurse, awaits Thackery’s return, while Bertie (Michael Angarano) fumes with anger at her romantic betrayal. Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) is in jail, awaiting trial for her role in the secret abortion clinic.
Part of the magic of “The Knick” is the way it taps into themes that are still in the air over a hundred years later — black men in power, the collision of Catholic faith and abortion, the rigors of addiction. Like “Mad Men,” the show plots our social progress over the years, which has moved a lot slower than our scientific progress. At points, the new episodes strain to link past and present, with Thackery launching into didacticism about how addiction needs to be viewed as an illness, and not a moral failing. His argument seems a bit too forward-thinking, and it threatens the show’s hard-earned period authenticity.
But generally, the writing pulls in still-festering themes effortlessly, blending them with plotlines — a new surgeon who doesn’t know how to operate, a pimp who blackmails the manager of the Knick to have his workers checked for venereal disease — that are never less than engaging. When it comes to compelling attention, “The Knick” has a knack.
Starring Clive Owen, Andre Holland, Juliet Rylance, Eve Hewson, Cara Seymour, Jeremy Bobb, Michael Angarano, Eric Johnson. On Cinemax, Friday, 10-11 p.m.