The Knick: Steven Soderbergh's Television Experiment
A director hones his style in a turn-of-the-century hospital setting.
Four years ago, Academy Award and Palm d’Or-winning director Steven Soderbergh “retired” from feature film directing. Why would someone with 28 feature films and a television movie—many of them highly acclaimed—hang up his jersey and walk away? For one, he didn’t want to resemble an aging athlete who stayed in the game a little too long (see Willie Mays, or Kobe Bryant), and he wanted to avoid ever having to sit in another meeting with film executives, who he once referred to as “people who don’t know movies and don’t watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you’re going to be allowed to make.”
Soderbergh has now done what Michael Jordan, Jay-Z, and Garth Brooks have all done before: returned from a brief retirement. Logan Lucky, his first theatrically released film in a few years is out in theaters, and Soderbergh experiments with a new form of distribution that he hopes will change the way independent films are marketed and released in the future. (Though, judging by the box office, it’s not changing much.)
But let’s take a moment to appreciate the most accomplished work he did in-between retirement and his return to feature filmmaking: serving as executive producer and director for all 20 episodes of Cinemax drama series The Knick.
Created by Joseph Amiel and Michael Belger, The Knick follows Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), the head of surgery at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital and the various other employees around the building that gives the show its title. It’s a show about process, experimentation, innovation, ambition, and addiction—along with the strenuous effort and sacrifice that comes with medical work in the early 20th century.
Soderbergh isn’t the first director to direct every episode of a television series. Recently Cary Fukunaga did it on the first season of HBO’s True Detective, Sam Esmail did it for the second season of Mr. Robot, and the practice is common in British television. However, Soderbergh went much further than anyone has before or since when it came to television; not only did he direct every episode of The Knick, but he also served as his own cinematographer and editor (listed in the show credits as Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, frequent pseudonyms used by Soderbergh).
He’s worn all three hats throughout his film career—with films like Solaris, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience and Magic Mike—but nothing on this kind of scale before. For 20 hours, 1200 minutes, 72,000 seconds, Soderbergh did whatever he wanted with that camera and he didn’t waste a single moment, using every second to experiment and push the boundaries of what we know as TV.
Scenes that featured Soderbergh using long tracking shots kept appearing, becoming more complicated and extraordinary as the series progressed. In one of the best sequences in the entire series, Soderbergh films a charity ball following groups of characters inside, over and over, the camera raising a few above the ground, then coming back down, cycling through several different framings. It’s something out of a movie like Russian Ark, not what we’re accustomed to seeing from television.
2014 was an important year in the Peak TV era on television. Mad Men was hitting its home stretch. Game of Thrones was at its peak as the most popular show in the world. The Walking Dead was (and remains) a cable ratings juggernaut.
But The Knick was the most visually creative show on television during its run. If you’ve never seen it because flying dragons or grisly zombies dominated popular consciousness, give it a try. Because a show like this, with one director’s visual style so dominant and consistently excellent, should be appreciated.