Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan
Cinemax, the scruffy bastard stepchild of HBO, is the perfect home for Steven Soderbergh's harrowing hospital melodrama The Knick (Friday, 10/9c), which depicts 1900s New York City as a vivid Dickensian nightmare. Though described by the series' severely flawed doctor hero John Thackery (a ravaged and mustachioed Clive Owen) as "a time of endless possibility," this Age of Progress has its limitations, with primitive and barbaric conditions at the financially struggling Knickerbocker Hospital often turning the literal surgical theater (with rows of curious spectators) into a grisly abattoir.
Raw, gamy and at times impenetrably dark, The Knick gives off a Grue's Anatomy vibe as Thackery bristles in coiled fury at the perilous trial and error of his cutting-edge methods, while on street level a ghoulish turf war erupts over bringing in patients (especially those with money) and even securing cadavers needed for training.
As if anticipating the House-inspired trend of damaged but brilliant doctors, Thackery is a debauched drug addict and belligerent iconoclast, and also exhibits a virulent racism when the hospital's benefactor forces him to hire an educated African-American doctor (André Holland). Marginalized in this hostile environment, the angry new doc sets up a risky underground clinic to treat his disenfranchised brethren, enlisting custodial workers and seamstresses to help. Things do not go smoothly for any of them.
The Knick is compulsively, crudely riveting, even when your natural instinct is to avert your eyes and demand to be released from this hellhole, stat.
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Far a more escapist and pleasurable time, look to Starz, which travels the high (or Highlander) road of historical-romantic fantasy in the appealing and gorgeously filmed Outlander (Saturday, 9/8c), based on Diana Gabaldon's phenomenally popular best-sellers and developed for TV by Battlestar Galactica's Ronald D. Moore. Be patient in the first hour, because just as in the books, it takes a while for the premise to kick in, magically transporting Claire Randall, a willful 20th-century lass (the ravishing Caitriona Balfe), back in time 200 years into Scotland's lusty, violently turbulent past.
Like a more mature Dorothy in a pungently realistic Oz, this feisty former WWII Army nurse longs to return home and still pines for Frank, her bookish husband of the future (Tobias Menzies), whose spitting image in the past is nowhere near as hospitable. But Claire soon finds herself drawn to a robust and studly young 18th-century clansman, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), whose wounds she tends as they evade the oppressive English troops who suspect the unusually progressive and dangerously outspoken Claire of treason.
With stunning location photography (in Scotland), an enchanting title sequence and score (by Bear McCreary) and a love triangle literally for the ages, Outlander promises to bring Starz the Game of Thrones-level buzz the network has strived to achieve since the more lurid Spartacus laid its bloody swords and sandals to rest. Nowhere near as gratuitous in its sexual or violent content — though there is enough of both to remind you this isn't your typical Masterpiece Classic — Outlander may sweep you away in a mist of woozy passion. There are worse ways to spend a summer weekend night, or nights.
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