In the corner of an opium den in New York, Dr John W Thackery (Clive Owen) slumbers in dishevelled post- narcotic disarray. As ordered, he is woken by one of the den's inhabitants and catches a horse- drawn carriage to the fictional Knickerbocker Hospital in Lower Manhattan.
Before he disembarks he injects cocaine in between his toes to put him in the mood so he can accompany the chief surgeon in his 12th attempt to perform a C section on a woman who is eight months pregnant.
With an audience present, the operation, one of many intensely gory procedures we are treated to in this 10-part medical drama, shows us in graphic detail how primitive surgery was back in the 1900s as a medical assistant strenuously pumps blood out like grinder on a yacht and is ordered, "More vacuum, Pickering, put your back into it!" A nurse reports that the patient's pulse is eccentric and the mother and baby both die on a blood-soaked operating table.
Just as well the dialogue in The Knick (SoHo, 8.30pm, Thursday) is top shelf and the overall look of this period drama is so authentic you feel like you're right there, with director Steven Soderbergh's conjuring of the era making Martin's Scorsese's Gangs of New York look lurid and over the top.
The chief surgeon is so despondent after the botched operation he tops himself, leaving Dr Thackery in charge and under pressure from the hospital's patron, the lovely Cornelia Robertson, to accept a black doctor (Dr Algernon Edwards) as his 2IC.
Dr Thackery is all ego, brilliance and is deep in addiction. He rips strips off pretty Nurse Elkins at a patient's bedside, blaming her for an infection and telling her: "There's no room for weakness and self-pity here. You should take a donkey cart back to Kentucky where you can concentrate on moonshine and poultices."
Later, when he won't answer his door because he's going through withdrawal, she arrives on the scene to tell him his surgeon's skills are required at the hospital, and he makes her hit him up. Watch that space - will he have a dalliance with her or his patron? Probably both.
Doctors and nurses play aside, there's a heap of related medical characters here, a low-life ambulance attendant, name of Cleary, whose verbal spars with a tough, cigarette-smoking nun are priceless - eg. she informs him that God loves all of his children, "but in your case I'm sure he'd make an exception".
The Knick is a welcome addition to the SoHo stable and has brought Soderbergh out of retirement to give us informative historical drama and command great performances.
- There's a new chat show on TV3 tonight, 8.30. On The Michael McIntyre Chat Show, the UK comedian's guests are Terry Wogan, Lily Allen and Lord Sugar.
- The Dominion Post
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