Recently, I’ve become completely obsessed with The Knick. The what, you ask?
The Knick is an episodic TV show that’s airing on Cinemax, which explains why you’re probably not watching it (sorry, Cinemax). Luckily for HBO subscribers, the first 10-episode season was briefly available on HBO Go, but it went away as of Oct. 31, so you’ve missed that opportunity. I watched a few episodes on HBO Go before it was cruelly yanked from me, and then actually sprung for the entire season’s rental on Amazon. And I suggest you do the same. It’s the best $25 you’ll spend in a long while.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Behind the Candelabra),The Knick is a beautifully drawn period drama, along the lines of Mad Men—except it’s set in the early 1900s instead of the early 1960s, and it takes place in a hospital, The Knickerbocker, instead of an ad agency. But all of the other elements—sexism, racism, classism, and lack of modern technology—that beset both historical eras are represented here, and play a large role in propelling the narrative. And the Knick’s attention to period-appropriate detail in its recreation of New York at the turn of the century are as mesmerizing as the mid-century modern furniture and vintage clothing that were a large part of Mad Men’s appeal.
The characters in The Knick even line up nicely with those in Mad Men. Dr. John Thackary, the devilishly sexy and brilliant surgeon/troubled and devious womanizer at the center of the Knick’s narrative, makes for a nice Don Draper doppelganger. Like Draper, Thackary has a secret; for Draper, it was his true identity that needed to be kept under wraps; for Thackary, it’s his addiction to cocaine. Both Draper and Thackary are almost unbearably attractive, with dark black locks and an oozing sexuality. Both don’t mind a visit with a prostitute here and there, and both are irresistible to women. And, much like Jon Hamm’s portrayal of Draper, Clive Owen’s Thackary is a dark, brooding anti-hero that you can’t help but fall for.
Mad Men’s Joan is roughly equivalent to The Knick’s Dr. Algernon Edwards. Edwards is a talented, African-American surgeon who has difficulty being recognized as such as a result of his race; Joan was a talented businesswoman who had a hard time being taken seriously because of her sex. Also: both Joan and Edwards are super-duper hot, and have love trysts that must be kept secret. For both, it is a singular detail—for Edwards, his race; for Joan, her sex—that both defines and limits them because of the time period in which they are living. Finally, both characters make us recognize just how far we’ve come in the intervening years, and yet also, how far we haven’t come.
Herman Barrow is the hospital’s manager, and The Knick’s Pete Campbell. Although he doesn’t have Campbell’s ambition, he’s a similarly slimy character. Barrow’s only out for his own gains, and he’ll do whatever it takes to succeed. He’s a sexually creepy, lying kiss-ass, and instantly hate-able. Barrow also has a soupçon of Mad Men’s Lane Price. In other words, you root for him to fail.
Mad Men’s Peggy Olson—young, eager, naïve—is mirrored by The Knick’s Dr. Bertie Chickering Jr., a beginning surgeon who worships at Thackary’s feet. Bertie is as sweet and innocent as Olson was at the beginning of Mad Men, and like Olson, he has a lot to learn, not just about the ways of his chosen profession, but also about the ways of the world.
There are other characters that seem to parallel eachother as well; The Knick’s Nurse Elkin’s love for a man who will clearly disappoint her is similar to that of Betty Draper’s, and, while The Knick’s Eleanore Galanger character has nothing more in common with Trudy Campbell than they both have a husband, they do look a lot alike.
Finally, Manhattan—with all it’s grit and danger and beauty and history and sumptuousness and inequality and bars—is, in both shows, practically a character unto itself. You watch the gorgeously cinematic scenes to get an idea of what the city was like “back then,” make note of what’s still the same, and what isn’t; try to place yourself in a New York City that seemed so much simpler, yet was just as complex, as it is today.
In conclusion, if you liked Mad Men, you’ll love The Knick. Trust me, you will. But be careful: Once you’ve been hooked with Season 1, you’ll have to wait until Season 2, which just started airing, comes to Amazon. Or, who knows? You might even spring for Cinemax.