Director Steven Soderbergh moves from movies to TV with Cinemax's "The Knick," a dark, bloody, period hospital drama that's a marked change from the premium cable network's past original series, the action-adventure-oriented "Strike Back" and "Banshee."
While "The Knick" maintains those shows' degree of gore, it's more clinical, and fisticuffs are few.
In some respects, "The Knick" (10 p.m. Friday) feels most like a sequel to BBC America's short-lived "Copper." It's set 35 years later in 1900, but it's still a time in New York when immigrants' country-of-origin identity remains high, and an African-American doctor gets mistreated at every turn.
Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen, "Children of Men"), a cocaine and opium addict, is one of the top docs at New York City's Knickerbocker Hospital (aka The Knick), which receives funding from shipping tycoon August Robertson (Grainger Hines).
Robertson's daughter, Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), chairs the hospital's board of trustees and puts her father's desires into action, from electrifying the hospital to hiring a talented black doctor, Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), much to the dismay of Thackery, who had his own candidate in mind.
"In London and Paris, I was treated as an equal," Edwards says.
"You can only run away and join the circus if it wants you," Thackery replies coolly. "I don't want you in my circus."
And later, Thackery complains to Cornelia, "Just as a shopkeeper never stocks items on his shelves no shopper would buy, I would not employ a surgeon no patient will agree to have operate on him. We're an institution in dire condition, not an incubator for some progressive experiment for you and your father's money. Please, find yourself another hobby."
The doctors of The Knick push the boundaries of medical science forward through experimentation, and those efforts often end badly. In the opening scene of the premiere episode, Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer, "Orphan Black") attempts childbirth via C-section to bloody, disastrous results.
All 10 episodes of the first season are directed by Mr. Soderbergh, who brings grittiness and the occasional odd camera angle but not much light to the proceedings (this is a seriously dark show with limited use of lighting).
Writers/series creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler ("Big Miracle," "Malcolm in the Middle") introduce plenty of characters with interwoven, serialized storylines, but there's not much new under the dim sun in "The Knick." Even a brief description of Thackery -- brilliant but troubled doctor with addiction issues and racist tendencies -- reads like a TV trope.
Perhaps what's most mystifying about "The Knick" is how it wound up on Cinemax given the premium network's predilection for action-adventure shows.
Kary Antholis, president of HBO Miniseries and Cinemax Programming, said Cinemax has been attempting to raise the sophistication of its shows with each successive series, but landing "The Knick" had everything to do with the show's director.
"Yes, we're developing a lot of pulpy stuff," Mr. Antholis acknowledged last month following a press conference for "The Knick" at the TV critics press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif. "But when someone like Steven Soderbergh says he wants to do his show on your network, you say yes. ...When you have him out there saying he had a great experience, that's going to draw other people that can build a brand into something that becomes a really viable and powerful companion to [sister network] HBO."
Mr. Soderbergh said he requested to put "The Knick" on Cinemax rather than HBO.
"Frankly, in the midst of understanding that they were reorienting that brand, I kind of wanted to be the big kid at a small school," he said. "And I'm glad that that did work for them because it allowed for a smaller teacher to student ratio in the sense that it was really me and Kary Antholis having a conversation, and that was it. I mean, it was just the two of us, and I really enjoyed that. It was efficient, and it was fun. It all, for me, creatively, worked out perfectly."
Cinemax has already renewed "The Knick" for a second season.