You Can't Kick The Knick
Steven Soderbergh has retired from making feature films. The entire thing has been a bit of a Michael Joradn, Brett Favre-vibe to it. No one really believes he will stay away.
And here’s the rub: if his "retirement" leads to more of his current work, I hope he’s a committed quitter. I hope he never goes back.
He could, of course. Some of his most interesting work came near the end of his run. Haywire, Contagion, and Side Effects shared a dark visual aesthetic and an academic exploration of genre. Magic Mike was a bold leap into narrative territory largely ignored by the studios. Behind The Candelabra had Matt Damon and Michael Douglas kissing.
This is also the guy who made Traffic, coaxed an Oscar (cough undeserved cough) out of Julia Roberts and brought together four of the biggest stars in the biz (Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts) for not one Oceans, not two Oceans, but three Oceans movies, and made Sundance what it is with Sex, Lies and Videotape. The point is he’s important, ok?
I still hope he never goes back. Because his current project is better than anything he’s ever made. The Knick is genre-bending. It has done for hospital dramas what the first season of True Detective did for cop shows. The Knick took a big, bloody pair of Finochietto retractors and cracked it open. It tore out the heart and didn’t even bother putting it on ice.
The Knick returns this Friday on Cinemax (HBO's talented younger sibling) for its second season. The show takes place in and around the Knickerbocker Hospital in Harlem at the turn of the 19th century. As Clive Owen’s character, Dr. John Thackery says in the very first lines of the show, “…more has been learned about man’s body in the last five years than in the previous 500." Then bodies are hacked open, a lot more people die than survive, and you remember the math still adds up to: 500 years of ignorance + five years of getting better at not being ignorant = 505 years of ignorance. Convent Avenue and 131st Street in Harlem will never be the same.
Season one explored a number of under-explored narratives. It’s one of those few pieces of work that manages to contextualize a political or social issue without waving its flag inches from your face.
- Integration of minorities into the medical profession
- Feminist movement of women in positions of power
- The neighborhood effects from immigration
- Sanitation and disease control
and, of course
- Drug addiction.
You could integrate all of those into a contemporary show and still miss the mark entirely despite 100 years of history in between. Soderbergh wove each into the other to create something beautiful, brutal and insightful. Viewers may just second guess just how passionately they claim we live in a terrible world (we do but not like that, thank God).
Michael Jordan came back for a brief stint. Brett Favre did, too. Those returns weren't great compared to the body of work that came before their initial retirements. Soderbergh will inevitably return to filmmaking. Having The Knick on his resume won't make the return feel like a man trying to claw his way back into the spotlight for one second more. It will feel like a retired surgeon getting a call late at night, 'Mr. Soberbergh, it's something we've never seen before. We need your help.'
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb @NPBroadcaster