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NPR Arts & Life

'The Knick' Redefines Oscar-Winning Director's Role In Television

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

"The Knick" debuts its second season tonight. It's a Cinemax show about a New York hospital at the turn of the 20th century. It was crafted by Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans looks at how the director is reimagining television.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When you watch a TV show about a hospital set in the 1900s, the last thing you expect to hear is this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: But the throbbing, thoroughly modern synthesizers in this new episode of "The Knick" work wonders. They underscore a stark scene in which passersby make a gruesome discovery. The music makes viewers anxious, pushing them off balance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: And that's not the only element director and executive producer Steven Soderbergh uses to keep "The Knick" rooted in today and yesterday at once. As the second season begins, it's 1901, and the Knickerbocker Hospital is in transition. Despite the city's segregation, a black doctor is acting head of surgery. And its former chief of surgery is an addict stuck in a rehab facility. Clive Owen plays that addict, star surgeon Dr. John Thackery. And when Thackery eventually emerges from rehab, he argues with a skeptical member of the hospital's board to let him study a sordid subject, addiction.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE KNICK")

CLIVE OWEN: (As Dr. Thackery) I want to do some research into what causes addiction. It needs to be cured, and it should be treated like any other disease.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As hospital board member) Addiction is a failure of personal morality.

OWEN: (Dr. Thackery) I'd like to test that theory. I'd happily inject you with cocaine and heroin for a week and see if your morals and character are still intact.

DEGGANS: Soderbergh gives us so much here. By arguing a modern take on addiction, Thackery's both calculating and ahead of his time. He even gives Thackery a touch of the mad scientist ruthless zeal. Soderbergh's visuals are as adventurous as the sounds and words. He often shoots with a handheld camera, moving close to actors in crucial scenes. Tonight's episode opens with the camera tracking closely behind nurse Lucy Elkins, peering over her shoulder as she walks the hospital's corridors. In her mind, she recalls a letter she wrote to Thackery that describes life at the hospital and sets the stage for the new season.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE KNICK")

EVE HEWSON: (As Lucy Elkins) Life just goes on, but not for me, not without you.

DEGGANS: It's tough to imagine any of this making sense without the mastery of Soderbergh who turned away from movies to bring an indie film director sensibility to television. In 2013, Soderbergh directed Michael Douglas' note-perfect performance as Liberace in the HBO movie, "Behind The Candelabra."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEHIND THE CANDELABRA")

MICHAEL DOUGLAS: (As Liberace) Well, I'll tell you, when I was working saloons in my youth back in Milwaukee, they called them saloons. I mean, that's how old I am.

DEGGANS: And he executive produced Amazon's "Red Oaks," a coming-of-age story set at a New Jersey country club in the mid-1980s, featuring Richard Kind as a father trying to encourage his flailing son.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RED OAKS")

RICHARD KIND: (As Sam) First couple of years at college, it's all about having fun, but after a while, you got to buckle down.

CRAIG ROBERTS: (As David) What's the big deal? I still passed.

KIND: (As Sam) A C is a Jewish F.

DEGGANS: Traditionally in TV, the director translates the head writer's vision. Many different directors can work on a single season of a show. And unlike movies where the director is the most prominent creative voice, television gives that power to the head writer. From episode to episode, no matter who's directing, in TV, the writing ties the show together. But Soderbergh, who's directed every episode in both seasons of "The Knick," is trying something different. He allows images to tell the story as much as the words. There are stretches where no one says anything. In a fight scene in the first season, a camera is mounted on an actor's head, and you feel like you're in the fight. "The Knick" impresses with a look, sound and feel unlike any other series on the small screen. It's a style that continues to distinguish the show in its second season as Soderbergh's vision of director-led TV projects bring the worlds of television and movies even closer together. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.