Luis Butelli and Clive Owen Luis Butelli and Clive Owen

Well, so much for that. Just over a year ago, Oscar- and Emmy-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Behind the Candelabra) turned 50 and announced his retirement from filmmaking — a decision that left Hollywood insiders stunned and baffled. Turns out he barely had time for a nap. Soderbergh is already back on the scene with the most epic undertaking of his career: The Knick, a sprawling, graphic medical series set in New York City in 1900.

"I was the first to be sent the script [by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler] and knew immediately that my time off was over," says Soderbergh with a laugh. "I didn't dare turn it down, because I knew the second person to read it would jump on it without hesitation. The storytelling is that spectacular."

Not only did Soderbergh sign on to the Cinemax series as executive producer, but he also directed all 10 episodes of the first season. "The doctor show is the world's most indestructible TV genre, and The Knick is an incredible variation on that," he says. "Though it takes place 114 years ago, there's nothing about it that's dusty or silver-plated. This was a fascinating time for medicine and for New York, a time that was bursting with great possibilities yet full of danger and death."

The series tracks the professional and emotional lives of the doctors, nurses and staff at Manhattan's Knickerbocker Hospital, a real-life medical center that was state-of-the-art at the turn of the century yet, like other hospitals at the time, had a startlingly high mortality rate.

"Back then, when you went into the hospital, you were very lucky to come out," says Oscar nominee Clive Owen (Closer), who stars as Dr. John Thackery, the Knick's brilliant but obsessive-compulsive chief of surgery, who is a cocaine addict by day and opium freak by night.

"This is health care before antibiotics, when tuberculosis and typhoid fever were rampant and there were no sanitary measures like gloves and masks," notes Owen. "The stress was so high that many doctors were functioning drug addicts, though at the time it was not illegal and there was no social taboo. In fact, liquid cocaine was considered the new wonder drug." Owen's character is loosely based on genius surgeon William Halsted, a cocaine and morphine junkie who cofounded Johns Hopkins Hospital and pioneered many surgical practices still performed today.

The Knick's ambitious tapestry — it has more than 250 speaking roles — also includes slimy health inspectors, protofeminists, badass nuns and blacks struggling to find their place in white society. "The racism is not subtle or insinuated — it's all out there on the table," says Andre Holland (42), who plays Thackery's second-in-command, Algernon Edwards, an African-American surgeon trained in Paris and London who is forced on the hospital by its powerful and progressive funder, Capt. August Robertson (Grainger Hines). "Algernon is straddling two worlds," Holland says. "He's not wanted by the white hospital, yet he's ostracized by his own race because he's refined and successful."

The women have their own issues. Irish actress Eve Hewson, daughter of U2 front man Bono, plays Lucy, a young, naive nurse who is abused and belittled by the shamelessly sexist Thackery until he attempts to quit drugs and goes into brutal withdrawal. Lucy saves him by injecting cocaine into the only part of his body that still has a suitable vein — his penis.

"It's pretty crazy stuff, especially for me, because I hate needles and gore," Hewson says. "The surgery scenes are so bloody and gross and uncomfortable that you can't help but be grateful for modern medicine. Everyone working on The Knick came away saying the same thing: 'I am so glad I don't live in 1900!'"

The Knick premieres Friday, Aug. 8 at 10/9c on Cinemax.

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