Tuesday, October 25, 2016
  • Thursday, Jun. 9, 2016
Jack Amiel, Michael Begler Discuss Genesis, Evolution Of Cinemax’s "The Knick"
Jack Amiel (l) and Michael Begler, creators of "The Knick" (photo courtesy of Cinemax)
Series creators reflect on challenges of 2nd season; show just garnered a coveted Television Academy Honor

For Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, creators, showrunners, writers and EPs on Cinemax’s The Knick, the second season of the series presented some daunting challenges in that the creative bar was set so high in season one, contributed to in large part by the yeoman efforts of its director, cinematographer, editor and EP Steven Soderbergh.

That high standard was further reflected this week when The Knick was one of six programs to be recognized at the Ninth Annual Television Academy Honors. Separate from the Emmy Awards, Television Academy Honors celebrate programming and programmers that explore and expose issues of concern to our society in compelling, poignant and insightful ways. The Television Academy recognized The Knick for reflecting society’s ongoing struggle with drug addiction and the continued search for answers.

As for the Emmys themselves, in its first season The Knick garnered five nominations, including for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (Soderbergh) and winning for Best Production Design for a Narrative Period (One Hour or More) Program (production designer Howard Cummings, art director Henry Dunn and set decorator Regina Graves).

Also in 2015 The Knick won the American Film Institute Award for TV Program of the Year. The AFI said that The Knick, which is set in 1901, “sparks an electric sense for the future in what first appears to be a bloody and backward past at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital.” The show, continued the AFI statement, operates “in a world where ambition and addiction, issues of race and reputation all collide in the masterful personification of Dr. John Thackery by Clive Owen.”

Back at the turn of that century, there was an excitement over new inventions with medicine taking a modern turn. So the overriding question for series creators Amiel and Begler was what turns the second season would take. Clearly some correct turns were made as The Knick is once again in the Emmy conversation.

“We wanted to top the previous season, make it more thrilling, interesting, wanted to go deeper with the characters but did not want to take the show to silly places that aren’t real,” shared Amiel. “We wanted to continue to build the characters in their lives and journeys without ‘jumping the shark’ for lack of a better term. We kept the show grounded in what was real and historically accurate--telling the truth while delving into how far you can go when you have drugs in an unregulated era.”

Begler concurred, adding, “We took a more expansive look into the world of New York, seeing different parts of the city and society. At the same time we wanted to up the ante on the surgeries--pushing the envelope without becoming gratuitous. By drilling down into our characters even more, we looked to make the story both bigger and more intimate.”

A bigger story carrying relevance today also took on a new dimension, observed Amiel, noting that in season one The Knick touched upon the limitations put on women, African-Americans and immigrants in 1901. “Season two moved into what those groups did to fight against those limitations. We wanted to tell the truth and reality of an era--and to do it better than the year before.” 

Audiences have embraced this exploration, continued Amiel, citing the rare 100 percent rating The Knick has received on Rotten Tomatoes. “We are not just doing big stories but focusing on personal, emotional lives,” said Amiel. “We could have alienated people with stories of struggle but viewers wanted to take that journey with us, which shows the universality of the human condition. Humanity is universal and reflects on our society today.”

As for what inspired the creation of a show looking back on medicine and society in 1901, Begler explained, “I was going through a medical issue a couple of years ago which had me looking down the road of alternative medicine. I was amazed at what medical science had figured out and what they hadn’t figured out. I shared my feelings with Jack, asking what were the options a hundred years ago. You couldn’t easily go on Google to find out so as a whim I bought a medical textbook from 1900 on Ebay. The second we started looking at it, we couldn’t put it down. It felt like an adventure story. We felt the writers were explorers, trying and testing procedures, realizing success or failure in a short time. We saw this world as one worthy of a show.”

Amiel added, “What was also interesting is that not a lot of people had fully explored 1900. You had Gangs of New York which was early 1860. Boardwalk Empire was in the 1930s. In 1900 we had what felt like an open playing field as writers. America was becoming the wealthiest, most advanced, most technologically successful country. People were flowing into New York from around the world for a chance at this new exciting vibrant country. African-Americans were coming up from the South to get a shot at the  big city. Rural whites were coming to get their shot as were immigrants from all over the land--Jews, Catholics, everyone from everywhere. We think we live in a fast time in 2016. But 1900 was a time of fast moving change and innovation. What we tried to do with season two was paint on a bigger canvas but with a finer brush to explore the hopes and desires of our characters.”

Individually Amiel, Begler and Steven Katz (originally a supervising producer and now a co-EP) shared a Writers Guild of America (WGA) Award nomination in 2015 on the strength of their work on The Knick.

This is the fourth installment of a 15-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmys ceremony on September 10 and 11, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 18.

Credits for ScreenWork: 

Jack Amiel, Michael Begler, series creators/showrunners/EPs; Steven Soderbergh, director, EP, cinematographer, editor.