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Review: Owen can't save 'The Knick'

By: Terry Terrones
August 7, 2014 Updated: August 7, 2014 at 10:19 am
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In Cinemax' new series "The Knick," Clive Owens stars as a brilliant and ambitious surgeon in a turn-of-the-century hospital in New York City.

"The Knick"

Cast: Clive Owen ("Children of Men"), Andre Holland ("42"), Jeremy Bobb ("The Wolf of Wall Street"), Matt Frewer ("Max Headroom")

Airs: The premiere episode airs at 8 p.m. Friday on Cinemax

The premise: Set in New York City in 1900, the fictional Knickerbocker Hospital is home to groundbreaking surgeons, nurses and staff who push the boundaries of 
medicine in a time of high mortality rates and no antibiotics. The newly appointed leader of the surgery staff is the brilliant Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), whose 
addiction to cocaine and opium is exceeded only by his medical ambition. New to the all-white staff of the Knick comes the equally gifted Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), who must fight for respect while trying to navigate a racially charged city.

"The Knick" is directed by Steven Soderbergh (Oscar winner for "Traffic"). Soderbergh also serves as executive producer.

Highs: "The Knick" is a reminder of the development of medicine at a pivotal time in history. The turn of the last century was a time of great medical discovery, with hospitals like the Knick continuing to expand their knowledge through groundbreaking practices. In one of the opening scenes of the premiere episode, Thackery and another doctor (played by an almost unrecognizable Matt Frewer), perform a cesarean section. The result of this now routine procedure is tragic. While in an age of medical enlightenment for its time, the disparity in medical technology between then and now is fascinating.

Owen's Thackery is truly brilliant and innovative, but he's also a racist drug addict. To make such a despicable person riveting to watch is a testament to Owens' acting prowess.

Lows: New York City in 1900 is a nasty place and "The Knick" does a good job of showing that. Too good a job. The New York City of "The Knick" is dirty and grimy and corruption abounds. Health inspectors take money from landlords to keep things quiet, and then turn around and take bribes from hospitals to bring them patients. Viewers will hear kids talk about working in sweatshops, see ambulance drivers fight over sick people and hear racial epithets.

If that's not enough to make you squirm, just wait until the operation scenes. They're quite graphic. You'll have to turn your head if you have a weak stomach. While all of these things are authentic to the time period, it can be 
unsettling to watch.

Owen's Thackery makes for compelling viewing, but when he's off-screen, "The Knick" stumbles. The supporting cast just can't match his intensity. I was hoping to see the character of Dr. Edwards turn into a proper foil for Thackery, but over the five episodes I watched that never materialized.

Grade: C-. The acting chops of Owen is almost enough to make "The Knick" appointment viewing. Almost, but not quite.

With Owen on-screen and Soderbergh at the helm, "The Knick" has an impressive pedigree. Unfortunately it leads to a show that's too dreary and slowly paced to keep you coming back.

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Gazette media columnist Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association. You can follow him on twitter @terryterrones.

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