The first episode of Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, which is streaming for free, is worth watching just for the street scenes in turn-of-the-century New York. It’s a nasty, crowded place, but the shots aren’t overstuffed and bustling — the show knows it has time, so it doesn’t feel the need to introduce you to every rag peddler and slumlord at once. In this way, it is not like a movie.
Here is how The Knick is like a movie: It’s beautiful, and it’s totally disgusting. The Knick is possibly the most visually arresting show in TV, not only for its setting but for its portrayal of the human body, inside and out, intact and ripped apart. Among its closest aesthetic competition is NBC’s Hannibal, which is equally organ-obsessed: The Knick’s camera lingers on primitive surgeries intended to save people; Hannibal’s lingers on bizarre surgeries intended to cause suffering.
Most of the acclaimed/new-golden-era/sad-people/big-money TV shows are formally gorgeous. Mad Men’s sets and actors are carefully arranged and filmed with vivid detail, and the fantasy world of Game of Thrones is as completely rendered as anyone could want. But these shows keep going and going — there are about forty hours of GoT — which has the odd effect of numbing the audience to their visual mastery. A single frame captured in Westeros might contain a dozen costumes, a CGI beast, ugly people and stunning people, an enormous castle. At first this is stunning, and it stays that way for a while. Eventually the big set pieces start to feel the same. You expect them, and they fade into the background.
The same could be said of the show’s other dependable source of novelty, its constant violence. Swords plunge into bodies and big brutes slash away at villagers and after a while you just start to tune out. Then someone’s head literally explodes, and the camera doesn’t cut away, and everyone is reminded they’re watching PREMIUM gore, on HBO. (The Walking Dead has become a sort of weekly splatter film: A queasy and conflicting blowoff valve for people who like to watch human-ish creatures get killed in new ways, in the loose context of a story, before they start their workweeks).
Dexter ran into this problem and more or less gave up on violence-as-art (and, eventually, almost everything else that made it interesting). The Knick and Hannibal sidestep desensitization and reclaim shock by taking the camera inside the body. Soderbergh knows that a deliberate incision in a quiet operating theater is so much more effective — and repulsive! — than full bodily destruction on a battlefield. The Knick’s surgery scenes revolve around the patient, his or her parts, and the flimsy instruments that are cutting into them. It doesn’t pay much mind to the people performing the surgery — their chattering and panicking and narrating is an accompaniment to the removal of a fetus, or the administration of the an experimental spinal anaesthesia. The camera zooms as close to action as it can without losing its place in the room entirely.
This is new, mostly! There have been plenty of gory shows on TV recently — The Walking Dead, True Blood, Bones, American Horror Story — but none of them are quite as visually innovative, or polished, or narratively dependent on blood. All violent shows, especially the better ones, are not easily situated on the cable/premium “appropriateness” spectrum. Hannibal isn’t less gory than The Knick — you may get a closer look at Clive Owen’s slashing and cutting, but it’s all at least notionally medical and meant to save. Hannibal Lecter kills people to eat them, and to make them suffer. He puts their bodies on display and the camera scans every detail. We watch him arrange their body parts into food, and then we watch him watch other people eat it. (The Knick is afforded the option of nudity by Cinemax, which it takes advantage of immediately, as if to say “hello, this is not AMC.”) But the moral taxonomy of television channels — network, cable, premium — barely seems to take violence into consideration. A reasonable person, watching these two shows back to back, could reasonably say that Hannibal, which broadcasts over the air on the same network as America’s Got Talent, is the more graphic and disturbing of the two. (It’s also a Tumblr sensation with a young and energetic fandom that doesn’t seem to care all that much about violence.) Then again that same person might watch cable news for five minutes and conclude: This is much worse.
People will become numb to this new gore, too, and then maybe it will be easier to tease out just how good — worthy? interesting? disturbing? — these shows really are. Hannibal has mostly held up as a psychological thriller over two seasons, but its slow-motion horror tableaus don’t mesmerize and repel the same way they did during those first episodes. The Knick’s novelty could easily wear off, as we settle into the old city, get used to the electronic score, and become accustomed to the sight of flapping intestines and the noises of wet clumsy surgery.
We also haven’t seen what a knockoff premium gore show looks like. Just wait for the Playboy Club to The Knick’s Mad Men. It’ll happen! It’ll be bad. And it will make us all feel a little bit worse about enjoying the shows that came before it in the first place.
Update: Willa Paskin suggests a first entrant into the knockoff gore genre: The Following.