Like most trends, the wave of what has come to be known as “historical dramas” started with something excellent: Mad Men. That show’s reputation for hyper-accuracy spawned others, like Boardwalk Empire and The Hour, that were nearly as good. But, naturally, there is a lot more to making a great historical drama than just getting the costumes and props right, and all of the shows that excel in this genre are, at their corps, great shows and not just historical oddities that we want to look at. Enter The Knick, Cinemax’ story of a New York hospital at the turn of the century.
The Knick breaks some rules and follows others, and at all times has an almost other-wordly weirdness to it. The Knick is part medical drama, part steam punk tribute, part Doctor Who episode gone very dark and wrong.
Strictly speaking, this show is historically accurate, but in its quest to accurately present the stark reality of 1900s New York, there is an almost lurid glee to the bleakness it sees (hand-cranked surgical suction of blood, a nun performing house-call abortions, grave robbing). It is hard to view Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery as your standard flawed or anti-hero. He’s a morphine addict who’s also arrogant, paternalistic and a bigot. He is offset by his confidant (and perhaps future ingenue) Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson, who also happens to be Bono’s daughter), who silently watches his imperfection in loving denial-laden admiration; and his foil, Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), an African-American doctor the hospital’s wealthy and progressive patrons insist must be part of Thackery’s staff, which he resents.
In direct contrast to Boardwalk Empire, which uses 1920’s music to such great effect, the score of The Knick is a droning techno-synth soundtrack circa the 1970s. Somehow this anachronistic background music serves as the perfect anesthesia to the painful realities the show dishes out.
Every genre starts with something great, that gets copied, and then diluted. And then something else comes along that reinvigorates the genre by doing something old in a new way. That something is The Knick. Catch up on it now.
Winding up its season is the CBS sci-fi drama Extant, which boasts both a big name creator (Steven Spielberg) and an oscar-winning marquis star (Halle Berry). And while the show isn’t exactly bad, it doesn’t really live up to that advance billing either. Or does it?
After all, Spielberg doesn’t have the best track record with TV shows (Falling Skies), or with stories about robot boys questioning the nature of their own existence (A.I.). Extant has both, along with an alien baby, a government conspiracy and Cameron Manheim.
Extant is just fine for a summer run – about as good as Under The Dome, for example, but it is a real mystery why Berry would want to pick this show among all others to try her hand at TV. You’d have to believe that your average cable drama would happily write an entire season around a character written just for her. Hell, Showtime would probably create a series just for a character written just for her. Is the lure of network TV really that big a deal in this day and age? I don’t get it.
Some networks, like AMC, seem to have an instinct for great original programming. Some, like MTV, really don’t. But I have to give credit where it’s due, and despite abysmal failure after abysmal failure, MTV did not give up on original programming, and eventually scored a few modest successes with Teen Wolf and Awkward. You can add this season’s Finding Carter to the success column.
Blessed with a premise so perfectly rooted in adolescent angst you wonder how in the world teen-centric networks like ABC Family or The CW could have missed it, Finding Carter focuses on a teen (Kathryn Prescott) who learns that she was abducted as a small child and now must reintegrate with her birth family, including her parents (Alexis Denisof and Cynthia Watros) and her fraternal twin sister (Anna Jacoby-Heron), while simultaneously dealing with the newfound knowledge that her mom (Milena Govich) was never really her mom.
The melodrama here is amped up on steroids, and covers all the teen angsty bases – teen romance, peer pressure, sibling rivalry and, of course, parents who just don’t understand, but there’s an earnestness to the performances that keeps the occasionally wild storylines from seeming too ridiculous. This show is unlikely to win any statues (except for whatever they give out at the Kids Choice awards), but it is entertaining and, by MTV standards at least, pretty damn good television.
Word on the street is that multiple remakes of Disney classics The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast are in the works. Wait up. Seriously?! Is someone gonna improve on Bear Necessities? Doubtful. And Beauty and the Beast was such an outstanding children’s film I don’t even consider it a children’s film. I consider it a top notch musical (which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and won for Best Song and Best Score) on a par with Chicago, Jesus Christ Superstar or All That Jazz. You don’t remake perfection.
Educational TV. Things we learned from watching TV this week: 1) Jason Segel isn’t so stupid in person (The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon); 2 The Dalai Lama also chooses the four noble truths and never chooses the noble dare (The Colbert Report); 3) If you’re a woman, and you’re pregnant, and you’re not Kate Middleton, then your baby sucks (The Soup).
For fans of edgy animated fare like South Park and Family Guy who also enjoy smartly characterized sitcoms like Parks and Rec, and celebrity spoofs like The Comeback, comes a bizarre mix of funny called Bojack Horseman, courtesy of Netflix. and featuring a dynamite voice cast including Will Arnett, Alison Brie & Patton Oswalt, along with plenty of cool recurring guests like Keith Olbermann and Aisha Tyler. In a vast sea of wannabe animation that doesn’t live up to the gold standard set by shows like The Simpsons, this one truly does.
Reality Check: Previews for Fox’s Utopia actually had me excited to check this show out. After all, Utopia was playing the long game – putting together 15 strangers for a year and then just leaving them to come up with…whatever. Instead, Utopia looks, sounds and feels like same old scripted reality television and the contrived roster of “regular” people includes a toothless hillbilly, a bona fide gun nut, a polyamorous girl with a nearly unpronounceable name and a vegan, anarchist survivalist. What, couldn’t find a bubble boy, a hermaphrodite and one of those kids who’s allergic to sunlight to round out the roster of regular people?
793 channels and nothing on? Treat yourself to an evening or two of Antenna TV. While this may be the golden age of TV dramas, the golden age of TV Sitcoms was undeniably the 1970s, and Antenna TV will dutifully take you there to see the likes of All In The Family, Sanford and Son, Good Times and Barney Miller, as well as going even further back for classic TV like Burns and Allen, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Patty Duke Show. C’mon now, go back to a time when TV theme songs were over a minute long and words. You’ll enjoy the trip.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History begins on PBS on September 14.
The season premiere of American Dad airs September 14 on Fox.
The Miss America Pageant can be seen on ABC on September 14.
The season premiere of Dancing With The Stars airs on ABC on September 15.
New Girl and The Mindy Project return to Fox on September 16.
The season finale of America’s Got Talent airs on September 17 on NBC.
The Mysteries of Laura debuts on NBC on September 17.
The series premiere of Red Band Society airs on Fox on September 17.
TV’s a big place and I haven’t been to all of it yet. Got a favorite show you’d like me to comment on? Post a comment below, contact me on twitter @RobLazlo. or shoot me an email: [email protected]. I welcome your input!