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'The Knick' Returns To The Bloody Pursuit Of Knowledge

Andre Holland (left) and Clive Owen get serious in Episode 3 of the second season of <em>The Knick. </em>
Mary Cybulski
Andre Holland (left) and Clive Owen get serious in Episode 3 of the second season of The Knick.

The Knick is a gripping TV show set in a hospital, but it's not your typical medical drama. The show, back for its second season on the Cinemax cable network, is set in New York's Knickerbocker Hospital in the early 1900s.

It's a world of white coats, dark hallways and all manner of infectious diseases.

Everything is grimy. The surgeries are often graphic, the doctors' lives often messy — and the racial and anti-immigrant sentiments fester like an open wound.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh directs the TV show, which has a big screen look and sophisticated cinematography.

But it's the script that won over the show's two lead actors: Clive Owen, playing a brilliant surgeon who has a wicked drug habit, and André Holland, who plays an equally brilliant surgeon trained in London — who can't get equal footing because he happens to be black.

Owen says after the first season, some viewers were shocked by the racism shown in the show.

"Talking to the writers, they were adamant, and I think rightly so, that the show is trying to show what life might have been like for people in 1900," he says. "And it would have been a complete disservice if I was the one cool white liberal doctor who said 'Yeah, you're very talented, you should come and work in this hospital.' "

Clive Owen plays Dr. John Thackery, a drug-addicted doctor, in <em>The Knick. </em>
Clive Owen plays Dr. John Thackery, a drug-addicted doctor, in The Knick.

Instead, Owen's character, Dr. John Thackery, initially rejects Dr. Algernon Edwards, played by Holland.

"We're trying to depict what it might have been like for a character like Dr. Edwards," Owen says.

But as the show goes on, the relationship shifts.

"There is something about Thackery that he's got all these issues, and you know, he's a functioning drug addict, but his one saving grace is that he is passionate about furthering medicine," Owen says. "And ultimately that is to the benefit of everybody.

"And it was important to me that once he realizes how good Dr. Edwards [is] ... that everything else falls by the wayside, because that becomes to him the most important thing. He can see the talent and intelligence."

"Although they do have different sort of politics and they started where they started in quite an adversarial way ... that pursuit of new knowledge is really what bonds them," Holland agrees.

"And there are some things that Thackery gets up to in Season 2 that he needs some help with, and there are some things that Algernon needs some help with, and ironically each other are really the only ones that they have."

Owen says it was both physically and mentally challenging to play a drug addict.

"Both the beauty and the challenge of it is that you're never just playing a scene, because he's consuming a lot of drugs, so you have to inform every scene with something else," he says. "It's not just what's going on in the scene, it's, you know, is he on drugs? How much is he on? Does he need drugs?

"There's no scene where you just sit back and play it very cool and relaxed, you've got to always be in a very kind of heightened state."

There was a real Knickerbocker Hospital in New York, though it's not the exact one depicted on the show. But the medical procedures the characters perform are drawn from life, Owen says.

"We were very lucky — we had a medical adviser called Dr. Stanley Burns who has this incredible townhouse here in New York ... [where] he has literally hundreds of thousands of pictures of operations that were happening at this time. He had surgical instruments from the period," Owen says.

"Really the Knick was his fantasy come to life," Owen says.

Andre Holland plays Dr. Algernon Edwards, who attempts to become chief surgeon as Season 2 of <em>The Knick </em>begins.
Andre Holland plays Dr. Algernon Edwards, who attempts to become chief surgeon as Season 2 of The Knick begins.

"I've been stopped on the street a number of times by groups of doctors and nurses," Holland says. "And you'd think I was a rock star to those guys, because they're so happy with the accuracy of it all, and they really applaud the level of detail — which again points to Stanley Burns."

"Nothing in The Knick has been created for dramatic effects," Owen says. "It's all been totally inspired by research and what was really happening."

And what was really happening at the time, as shown graphically on The Knick, was often cringe-worthy.

Now, when they go to the doctor, Holland says, "[we're] glad we're not going to The Knick."

"I think it's one thing that Steven said right from the beginning, is that he didn't want anyone to feel nostalgic about living in New York in 1900," Owen says.

"And you certainly, after seeing the show, wouldn't want to be wheeled out on one of those gurneys."

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