Cinemax was nice enough to send me a promotion kit for their new show The Knick, which included a DVD of the first episode. The Knick is a period medical drama from Cinemax, premiering tonight (August 8th) at 10 p.m. The eponymous locale is the Knickerbocker Hospital, a struggling establishment in 1900 New York City.

But this is not Gas Lamp Grey’s Anatomy. Nor is this Downton Abbey E.R.

No, this is a much grittier and more unpleasant reality. Medicine in 1900 New York has progressed to the point that they performed surgeries, but not to the point that they were neat or reliable. Bacteria and viruses had been discovered, but not antibiotics. Racism and sexism and classism were not only alive and well, but being practiced in a very matter-of-fact way. There is drug abuse and corruption. And to remind us that the more things change, they more they stay the same, there are dubious goings-on regarding healthcare costs.

Clive Owen stars as Dr. John Thackery, the assistant head of surgery, and it brought a smile to my face to realize that it was none other than Matt Frewer unrecognizably playing chief surgeon Dr. Christensen. Thackery is brilliant but erratic, but not in a Greg House sort of way. Greg House was a likeable ass. Having watched the first episode of The Knick twice, I still can’t say I like Thackery, or really any of the characters. I don’t necessarily dislike them either. Instead, I think I need to get to know them better. Some seem like decent people. Some seem like smart people. Some even seem like interesting people. But unlike most TV dramas, there is no desire to have characters embody all three of the traits and the result is a more realistic feel to most of the people inhabiting this world (although the Ambulance driver felt a bit clichéd, albeit probably still a realistic depiction). And the verisimilitude is only helped by Steven Soderbergh’s flat pacing, since the real world does not often have conveniently queued highs and lows.

One thing that initially felt out of place was the music, which is a sort of new age electronica completely out of sync with the period of the piece. That said, while it was jarring initially, by the end of the episode it somehow melts into the scenery and works, even though it feels like it shouldn’t.

For those of us interested in the Steampunk aesthetic, there is plenty of eye candy here. Period costumes range from the ragged clothes of poor huddled masses to the more lavish dresses of the rich Hospital patroness. And there is some lovely mechanical surgical equipment, used to gory effect during the surgeries we witness in the first episode. There is something both wonderful and horrible about watching a resident cranking away at a hand pump to suction blood out of the surgeon’s way (and into glass bottles).

Steven Soderbergh directed all ten episodes of the first season and it has already been renewed, before even premiering. Clearly, Cinemax has plenty of confidence in The Knick, and it feels well placed. While the hospital itself might be struggling, the show itself feels solid and, as the posters below suggest, it promises to say as much about today as it does about 114 years ago.