Clive Owen, center, stars as doctor circa 1900 in a look at the lives of a New York hospital's staff in the drama series 'The Knick.' (Mary Cybulski)
It’s New York in 1900, and ambulance drivers get a kickback for every sick person they bring to a hospital. Hospital administrators sell corpses for extra cash and surgeons don’t bother to wear gloves while operating.
Then again, the gloves aren’t that big a deal since most surgery patients seem to bleed to death while the surgeons puzzle out procedures. This is not a good time to get sick.
It is, however, a great time for a TV drama about health care, and “The Knick” takes full advantage of all the possibilities. The series is helped mightily by the fact that its first 10-episode season was directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh.
It also doesn’t hurt that Oscar nominee Clive Owen leads the cast (yes, the migration from film to TV continues). He plays Dr. John Thackery, the brilliant, inventive head of surgery at the Knick, a struggling hospital. Thackery gets through the day fueled by cocaine injections, then winds down at night in a Chinatown opium den, so he’s not exactly what you’d call stable.
Surrounding him is a diverse group of characters, from a corrupt administrator (Jeremy Bobb) to an altruistic philanthropist (Juliet Rylance) to a thuggish ambulance driver (Chris Sullivan) and angelic-if-naive nurse (Eve Hewson).
A racial component is introduced when a new assistant chief of surgery (Andre Holland) is hired and he turns out to be black. Even though he’s well-qualified, he’s rejected by patients and peers alike. That problem gets overwhelmed, though, as a bigger storm begins brewing: a typhoid epidemic.
A period piece with serious punch, “The Knick” isn’t for the faint of heart. But suddenly, modern health care looks pretty good.