Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan 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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