By EMILY NUSSBAUM
What if you change your mind? It’s a problem built into a TV critic’s job, which, unlike most arts criticism, takes place over seasons and years, across hiatuses and summer doldrums and newfangled “mid-season finales.” A pilot is one art form, a finale another. In between, the question comes up over and over: Should I write early in the season? Three-quarters of the way through it? After a particularly provocative episode? Or maybe years after the finale has aired?
Every critic has his or her own rules, and some of mine are pretty masochistic. If I pan a show, I keep watching: I want the chance to change my mind. This doesn’t apply to mixed reviews, but when there’s a show that I’ve truly thrown down with—this means you, “The Newsroom,” and you too, “True Detective”—a pan demands commitment. So far, this rule hasn’t meant much. I’ve watched a few shows turn into something much better (“Cougar Town,” for one), and others get worse (“Two Broke Girls”), or confirm my opinion in maddening ways (“Smash,” which I first praised, then panned—and which I miss more than any other terrible show). I’ve had fresh insights, and, at times, I’ve gained greater sympathy for what the creators were trying to do. But generally, I haven’t actually started to like a show that I used to seriously dislike.
Which brings us to “The Knick,” a new series on Starz. In my initial look at “The Knick”—a sensuous, serious-minded period drama, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Clive Owen—I reviewed the show after watching seven episodes of a ten-episode season. That seemed like a sufficient amount of time to draw conclusions, particularly because the seventh episode included a brilliantly filmed action sequence, which offered closure. I’d always thought that the show was visually gorgeous; the subject matter was great, too. But the dialogue felt hacky, and I was bugged by what seemed like anti-hero clichés. Worse yet, I sensed, beneath the show’s surgical gore, a smug preachiness. The good guys would cure their racism, sexism would be bad, and, in the end, brilliant geniuses would triumph together and create progress. I didn’t love that there was only one African-American character and that, despite the show’s theoretical anti-racism and a strong performance by the actor who played him, that character felt saintly. When I published the review, I felt O.K. about it: it seemed like an authentic response to the show, though I knew that many other critics had enjoyed “The Knick” more.
Then I watched the final three episodes and … well, I changed my mind.
I don’t want to spoil the last three episodes, but there were a few things that hit me. Somehow, in the weeks after writing the review, I’d opened my heart to Clive Owen’s manic, brooding, bug-eyed performance as the brilliant and near-total asshole Dr. Thackeray, a.k.a. Thack. I’d initially perceived the character as yet another variation on the cable anti-hero, his “bad” qualities really just sexy scars. But over time, this arrogant junkie struck me as an actual arrogant junkie, whatever his knife skills. Like Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”—which requires a whole separate conversation and just finished up a truly strange season—this show does not pussyfoot around about the prototypical surgeon’s personality. Besides, with his meaty red face and extremely angry hair, Owen owns this role. When the hot nurse played by Bono’s talented daughter (Eve Hewson) slept with Thack, I wasn’t as fully enamored of the “Don’t Look Now” homage as many other viewers were, but I was sure interested in their relationship.
What’s more, I realized that I’d misjudged the show’s politics: the series is much grimmer than I’d understood, less preachy and more legitimately nihilistic about the circumstances surrounding scientific and social progress. In a few plots, “The Knick” is so spooky that it’s practically a horror show, verging into Ryan Murphy territory. I’m still not thrilled with the Oriental brothel scenes, or with Juliet Rylance’s stagey performance as Cornelia; I’m bored by the mobsters. But the surgical battles scared and excited me, and while I know that the scenes of gore have been off-putting for many viewers, I began to get into their ugly aggression, as well as Soderbergh’s vision of the body itself as a war zone. I fell in love with the season’s final shot. I would never apologize for a negative review, and I can’t go back in time, but I can add an addendum: a few weeks later, I no longer agree with myself. So if you were swayed by my earlier review … well, you might consider reconsidering.
I can't at the difference between these two images. Lmao.
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I still kinda can't believe she wrote this, but I am so happy more people are seeing the light! <3 Also, sad we don't have more stills tbh.