The grim, bloody wonderful business known as The Knick — primarily set in a New York City hospital at the start of the 20th century — only got two seasons but they were great fun.
This virtuoso dark drama, created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, was directed by Steven Soderbergh in a shadowy and often experimental style, somewhere between Grey’s Anatomy and the Twilight Zone.
Originally made for Cinemax, The Knick has is now available on HBO Max where I hope it finds a very warm welcome with pandemic-weary viewers (even as the show pretty much dives into a macabre assortment of diseases and bodily horrors.)
The show was unusually precise when it came to accurate depictions of historical events, famous figures and — with no lack of gruesome detail — medical practices of its day.
At its center was Clive Owen as Dr. John W. Thackery, as dark and brooding as his surroundings, as brilliant and inventive as he was drug-addled.
Through his adventures, we got to enter New York’s finest restaurants and foggiest opium dens, often within five minutes of each other.
Back in 2014 and 2015, we were very, very on The Knick beat here at the Bowery Boys: New York City History website.
We highly suggest you take a dive into this series or take a second look if you binged the first two seasons — after checking out these resources from our podcast and website
The inspiration for the original Knick:
“Location: Covent Avenue and 131st Street
The hospital depicted in The Knick is much, much further downtown. However, with the arrival of elevated trains and, later, the subway, some new immigrants would have settled in upper Manhattan to escape the crowded tenements. So the types of patients treated at these institutions would have been similar.”
Purpose: According to the 1914 Directory of Social and Health Agencies, “Gives free surgical and medical treatment to the worthy sick poor of New York City. Incurable and contagious diseases and alcoholic, maternity and insane patients not admitted. Emergency cases received at any hour.”
New York’s real ‘operating theaters’
A look at Syms Operating Theater at Roosevelt Hospital and Long Island College Hospital:
“The administrators at Long Island College Hospital could not have been thrilled when they picked up the New York Times on April 27, 1895.
Right there on the front page was a horror story with their historic institution as a backdrop.
“It is from this upper floor that foul and inexpressibly nauseating odors are wafted through the operating theater at all times, because it is there that the students of the college and hospital practice anatomy on eighteen or twenty decomposing cadavers.”“
The Cocaine Fiends of the Gilded Age
The wonders of cocaine in medicine: “Cocaine was the wonder drug of the early 1880s. Not only could it cure disease; it could also dampen the senses.
“In 1884, a doctor presented his findings at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (23rd/Park Avenue), heralding the successes of “anesthetic cocaine” in numbing patients during ear and eye surgeries. It was even given as a pain reliever to horses.“
Visiting The Knick (the sets, that is)
In 2015, we went a step further and paid a visit to the interior sets of The Knick Season Two, filming in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
For many more pictures, check out our 2015 article on the visit.
Season Two Recap
For a good recap of themes from Season Two — and a look at tweets from the Bowery Boys Podcast about The Knick — check out this article: A history recap from the brothel to the freak show. Here’s an excerpt:
Deteriorated or stunted moral character was also seen as endemic of new arriving immigrants especially those from southern Italy.
The study of eugenics — belief in the improvement of the human race through selective reproduction — rapidly grow in colleges and universities in the 1900s. Naturally the eugenics argument was also used against African-Americans and wielded as a threat against any who attempted to upend the status quo.”
Tweets Galore About The Knick
Here were a few sample Tweets:
Yum! Canned beer once had trace of formaldehyde (as bacteria-killing agent); urban legends persist that some still contains it. #TheKnick— The Bowery Boys Podcast (@BoweryBoys) December 5, 2015
And finally — they may be bringing The Knick back for a Season Three (or would that be a ‘reboot’), now with Barry Jenkins at the helm. Returning to the show — André Holland as Dr. Algernon C. Edwards. In 2016, Holland starred in Jenkin’s Oscar-winning Moonlight.