THE SHOW "The Knick"

WHEN | WHERE Fridays at 10 p.m., Cinemax

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This Steven Soderbergh-directed series is about "The Knick," a New York teaching hospital in 1900 competing for dollars and, quite literally, lives. Ambulance operators are paid to bring in the grievously injured, where they are attended to by John W. Thackery (Clive Owen), who has just been named chief of surgery after the suicide of friend and colleague J.M. Christenson (Matt Frewer). Administrators want him to appoint Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) -- who is black -- as his second in command; Thackery, who is a bigot, refuses, then relents. A story of race, corruption, old New York and the frontiers of medicine ensues.

MY SAY "No one handles the unexpected like John Thackery," a lady friend tells him in a later episode -- not exactly with unbridled admiration. "It's where I live," he replies, drolly.

But where exactly is that? He's drug-addled, brusque, often mean-spirited, bigoted, dyspeptic and charming when it suits him. He's also brilliant and obsessed -- a workaholic who sees a shining future no one else can see. Cinemax has already given "The Knick" a second season and it's easy to see at least a couple of reasons why. Not only is this series good -- in fact, "The Knick" may be the best thing Cinemax has ever done, which is not remotely an overstatement, by the way, just blunt fact.

But where Thackery "lives" -- his head -- is a cluttered, fascinating mess. It'll take at least two seasons to figure out what makes this guy tick, and maybe why we should care deeply about him as well.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Comparisons with Gregory House are inevitable and probably unfortunate, because "Thack" is not another reconstituted Sherlock Holmes but a deeply flawed antihero with a scalpel. It's hard to take your eyes off him, even when -- or especially when -- he's wielding that scalpel. (The surgical scenes are excruciating to witness, by the way.)

The mood and tone of "The Knick" falls somewhere between "Gangs of New York" and "The Portrait of a Lady," and the series effectively straddles both worlds, one sordid and dangerous, the other superficially "uptown" genteel. Soderbergh has created a vibrant, dark and above all alluring Gotham. Owen's Thackery is its bracing human counterpart.

BOTTOM LINE Viewers at long last have a reason to watch Cinemax. "The Knick" isn't merely good -- but clinically, historically (even sociologically) interesting.

GRADE A