I am, I concede, an odd television fan. I probably spend more time reading about television than actually viewing it. I actually enjoy reading reviews of television programs that I have no intention of ever viewing. Occasionally, however, a review or series of reviews makes me want to see something for myself.
And so it was with "The Knick", a bravura Steven Soderbergh creation (now with its second season in production) — a medical procedural set in a turn of the century New York City hospital. With almost its first scene a heartbreaking and gut wrenching failed cesarean section, whatever else The Knick represents, it is vivid. It is also somewhat clinically detached. Eventually we learn that the failed cesarian had been attempted unsuccessfully twelve times before by the same team. As one reviewer wrote, "The Knick uses historical distance to make sickness into something strange and unfamiliar, giving its doctors the aura of scientific adventurers." Adventurers they were. Later footage depicting brave experiments with unknown forms of anesthesia tip us off that the character of Dr. Thackery may, in fact, be based on extraordinary real-life surgeon Dr. William Halstead.
It would be an understatement to describe Dr. Halstead as an adventurer. I do have to wonder if the series does him justice in one important regard. Noone comforts the crying (very soon to be dying) young cesarian candidate as she is wheeled into the operating theatre in "The Knick." It is apparent she senses she is near death but it is unacknowledged, although it is clear the risk is grave.
Dr. William Halstead, in fact, stood for a new gentler surgical approach, recognizing roughly handled tissues were often lost. No less than H.L. Mencken noted "[h]e showed that manhandled tissues, though they could not yell, could yet suffer and die."
The critics' reviews on "The Knick" are mixed. For each "Steven Soderbergh Made a Gilded-Age 'ER' and It's Riveting" review there is an equal and opposite "Surgical Strikeout." "The Knick," it seems, suffers by comparison with PBS's "Call the Midwife" (soon to be showing its fourth season with a fifth in production). "The Knick" is being criticized for lack of character development when compared with the well-developed characters of both health care providers and patients in "Call the Midwife."
In all fairness, "Call the Midwife" has had far longer to develop the characters involved but these critics may have a point. Patients in "The Knick" are often unnamed, breathtakingly mute or near-mute. Patients in "Call the Midwife" may even serve as recurring characters, as they did in Jennifer Worth's memoir on which the series, through season three, has been based.
Some of this is a difference in perspective. Jennifer Worth has left us her personal, professional, and spiritual autobiography in her three volume memoir of her time in East London. Hers is a meditation on her personal transformation through service in a low income, low health literacy community. Over time, Jennifer Worth did not flinch to discuss the desperation of women with too many children and too little money. "Call the Midwife" is not for the faint of heart despite all those wonderful sepia colored images you may have seen of midwife Jenny Lee pedaling to a house call through the clotheslines of the East End tenements. The series itself is far grittier and Jennifer Worth's memoir grittier still.
We will see where "The Knick" takes us. Given that Dr. Halsted performed the first successful radical mastectomy for breast cancer in the United States, never mind transfused himself on the spot to save his sister's life post-partum, I can only imagine that more compelling drama is ahead. Oh, and did I mention he was a stickler for complete sterility in the surgical suite? I hope we get to see a more well-rounded presentation of this compelling, complex, and astonishing man.
And the mute young mother-to-be who never lived to grow into her role? She teaches us something as well about how the human touch, whether felt in carefully restrained surgery or attentive midwifery, can comfort and strengthen, even unto the last moments of life.
X-posted at Prawfsblawg.