When you hear the term "medical drama," it's likely that your thoughts turn to stories about brilliant, heroic doctors who use courage, intellect and the latest technology to save patients from ailments and injuries that might otherwise prove fatal.
The Knick is not that kind of medical drama. Not even close.
The Knick, a new series that premières on Friday, Aug. 8 on HBO Canada (check listings for time), is a hospital drama set in an era just before modern technology, equipment, techniques and, most of all, antibiotics pushed health care into the 20th century.
And as such, it's a medical show in which the medicine is primitive, brutal, bloody and more likely to turn patients into cadavers than cured individuals.
It is, in a word, messy. But The Knick, which was produced for U.S. cable's Cinemax (the corporate sibling to premium channel HBO), is also pretty compelling stuff.
One might be inclined to describe this as the show that puts the "gross" in engrossing.
The Knick is set in 1900, in the fictional Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City. Central to the storyline is Dr. John Thackery (played by Clive Owen), a talented, driven and ruthlessly ambitious pioneering surgeon who also happens to be deep in the throes of addiction to cocaine and opium.
Along with his colleagues at "The Knick," he is committed to pushing the boundaries of surgical innovation on a daily basis. What this means, however, is that every advance comes at a cost of numerous patients lost on the operating-room table as new techniques are invented and tested.
According to the series' creators, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler -- who did extensive historical research before writing the scripts -- it was the failure rate, and the body count, that drove many real-life doctors of that era to drugs.
"In a lot of our research, what we were finding was that, yes, a lot of them were using drugs like cocaine," Begler said recently during Cinemax's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "(Dr.) William Halsted being the best example -- he was one of the founders of Johns Hopkins (Hospital).... He was taking cocaine to do his job and to progress medicine, but he also needed to come down and needed to balance that, and his drug of choice was morphine.
"At that time, these doctors were trying to do so much to progress at such a high rate and at such a quick rate."
Added Amiel: "Thackery is a guy who is forcing himself into the future. He's the bow of every boat he's ever been on. And I think, for him, cocaine allows him to not look back. When you're a surgeon in this era, you have a body count behind you. And for Thackery, how do you forget the body count and cut into the next patient, when you know may have a 100 per cent mortality rate in this particular procedure? You know you're just learning, and so cocaine, I think, helps these guys -- first, to concentrate and to work inordinately wild hours, but the other part of it is is it's a good drug for forgetting and having the courage to go forward."
Owen, as Thackery, is very much the central figure in The Knick, but the series also features a rather large supporting cast, led by André Holland as Dr. Algernon Edwards, a European-trained African-American surgeon who is reintroduced to the barriers of racism when he returns to the U.S., and Eve Hewson (daughter of U2 frontman Bono) as Lucy Elkins, a newly arrived nurse who proves to be much sharper than doctors usually credit women for being.
By cable-drama standards, The Knick is a relatively slow-moving affair, but it's filled with fascinating character studies and jaw-drop-inducing glimpses of what passed for cutting-edge health-care techniques at the turn of the 20th century.
Cocaine injections for anesthetic purposes. Hourly doses of turpentine for pain relief. Mercury-infused steam to alleviate headaches. Yikes.
Owen is formidable in the role of Thackery, leaving no doubt that he's the A-list movie star in a solid company of actors. He said he was most definitely not looking for a TV-series role, but one pass through the series-pilot script was enough to convince him that Thackery was a guy he wanted to play.
"He's a very complex, difficult character," Owen explained. "He's kind of redeemed by the fact that he's brilliant and he's passionate. He's about trying to forward the whole world of medicine and trying to save people's lives, and ultimately, providing a huge service to people. But he's a very difficult, complicated, functioning addict at the same time.
"I just love the challenge of... taking this character -- it's not about being likable; it's not about making things easy. Personally, as an actor, I love the challenge of taking that on."
Another of the factors that brought Owen to The Knick, as both an actor and an executive producer, is the presence of Steven Soderbergh as a fellow producer and director of every one of the series' 10 episodes (Cinemax, by the way, has already renewed The Knick for a second 10-episode season).
It was barely a year ago that Soderbergh stated publicly that he was considering retirement from filmmaking. But when the material is compelling, well... never say never.
"Yeah, let's see," Soderbergh smiled. "Eleven months ago, I did not think I would be sitting here talking about 10 hours of material that is behind us and 10 hours in front of us. But I had a very similar reaction to the one Clive had when I read the first script, and I knew that as the first person who got to take a look at it, if I didn't say yes then the second person who was going to see it would say yes.
"You know, my whole life I've moved in any direction that I felt was going to excite me and engage me. It's sort of unfortunate that people have to keep listening to me explain why I went back to work, but I'm glad I did."