One of the side effects of living in the Golden Age of Television is that there’s so much good stuff out there it’s just a fact of life that some really good shows get overlooked. Take, for example, The Knick, which is two episodes into its second season run. Helmed by Steven Soderbergh (and created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler), the show has all the hallmarks of being one of those everybody-talks-about it cable shows. Only it isn’t.
I can fathom a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, Friday nights have never been great for struggling TV series (ask Joss Whedon). For another, Cinemax has yet to have its critical and cultural breakout series like HBO and Showtime have. People might be forgiven for still thinking of it as Skinamax first and foremost, which probably doesn’t help the show’s profile.
Which is a shame, because The Knick‘s become one of my favorite shows on TV right now. Part of that’s down to the wonderful world building that’s inherent in a show that’s set in 1900-1901 (I discussed something similar in an old review of Mad Men). But part of it’s down to one element of the show that’s a complete and utter anachronism – the score.
Cliff Martinez – a long-time Soderbergh collaborator – could have taken the safe route and used music of the period (or new music styled to sound like the music of the period) as a means to deepen the world building. Instead, the score is entirely electronic, full of burbling sequencers and noises that weren’t even contemplated in 1901, much less actually heard. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and brilliantly.
I think that’s because the story of The Knick is one of cutting edge advancements in science, even if it’s science that’s more than 100 years old and sometimes hilariously wrong. Even though electronic music has been around in popular culture for decades it still sounds vaguely “futuristic.”
But it also allows Martinez to do things in service of the story telling that would be impossible with a more traditional score. Brandon Nowalk, writing about the latest episode at the AV Club, describes one example. It involves a regular character’s father, a preacher, who comes to visit from home (which is West Virginia, if I’m not mistaken). Naturally, he winds up preaching:
He talks about the diversity of New York City and how all its exotic peoples have as much to learn from them, good God-fearing Christians, as they do from the exotic peoples. Okay, he speaks in tongues a few times. It’s a ballsy move after calling actual Earth languages he’s overheard on his visit “strange tongues from Babel.” He claims it’s God speaking through him. And then composer Cliff Martinez, whose work is often beyond my ability to express, ramps up the theremin sounds like it’s a classic sci-fi horror scene. AD invites the congregation to sing, and we pan back to Lucy, joining in with everyone else without hesitation. Soon the spooky sounds drown out the singing so we’re watching a silent group move in unison to the oooh-OOOH of the theremins and thump-thump-thump of the beat. There’s no clue in Lucy’s performance as to what could be the matter, but maybe that mindless conformism is the point, a demonstration of AD’s power. It’s a thrilling scene that somehow remains essentially elusive.
You can see that scene for yourself here. It’s just one example, but it’s a really good one. And while that’s only one aspect of a show that’s really hitting on all cylinders, it’s the one that most clearly sets it apart from its peers.