Steven Soderbergh's period medical drama, The Knick, which kicked off its second season on Oct. 16, has been praised for its vivid characterization, realism, historical accuracy, and visual style.
It's all true enough, but I also love the Cinemax drama for its inclusive approach to history. Unlike traditional histories that portray only the rich and famous, The Knick also gives us faithful, realistic accounts of people who remain invisible in traditional histories - the working poor and the indigent, ethnic minorities, and women.
That's one of the reasons I have tuned in to see the new breed of historical dramas, including HBO's Boardwalk Empire, AMC's Mad Men, WGN's Salem and Manhattan, NBC's Aquarius, and PBS's Crimson Field and Downton Abbey, that strive not only for accuracy and authenticity, but that also achieve true inclusivity.
The same ethic that drives today's greatest historians to write revisionary accounts of our past - the conviction that history doesn't belong only to the victors - now is inspiring TV writers to produce more equitable period shows.
Spinning tales about our past is one of the most fundamental ways for a people to define itself. And according to this ethic, if those stories feature only the winners - the white, male owners, rulers, and bosses - an entire segment of the population is robbed of its place in our collective past and a chance to achieve self-determination going forward.
A black surgeon arrives
A traditional history of medicine would include only the names of the (white, male) doctors and hospital owners who became famous for devising new techniques.
The Knick, created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed by Soderbergh, is set in and around the Knickerbocker Hospital, a public hospital in downtown Manhattan in the first years of the 20th century.
It stars Clive Owen as John Thackery, a brilliant, dictatorial, drug-addicted surgeon who revolutionizes medicine.
But the series is a truly Dickensian tapestry that gives us equally compelling stories about the nurses, orderlies, ambulance drivers, and patients who were involved in those early experiments.
The first season opened with the arrival of Algernon Edwards (André Holland), a Harvard-educated surgeon with extensive experience in London and Paris who comes to the Knick to learn Thackery's breakthrough methods. The pitched battle that ensues sets Thackery and Edwards on a collision course.
A typical B-story would portray its genius hero as a progressive champion of social change who warms to the idea of the Knick's hiring its first black surgeon. But The Knick isn't typical. Thackery is a creature of his times and rejects the very notion of an integrated staff.
"I'm sure there are many Negro infirmaries that will benefit from your talents," he initially tells Edwards.
He's forced to work with the new arrival and the two butt heads throughout the story.
The wonderful thing about The Knick is that Edwards isn't portrayed either as a victim or a lovable hero. He too has faults and plenty of inner demons.
The same was true of two strong African American characters in HBO's Prohibition-era crime epic, Boardwalk Empire, which recently ended its five-season run: bootlegger and gangster Albert "Chalky" White and self-styled Harlem community leader and heroin trafficker Valentin Narcisse. And PBS's Indian Summers, a mini-series about British colonial leaders in India, portrays its Indian characters as individuals who deal with British rule in vastly different ways.
Like them, Edwards has a contentious relationship not only with the white characters, but with other African Americans. Fellow lodgers at his boardinghouse attack him for his aristocratic bearing and educated speech. They remind him that despite his Harvard education, he's forced to live in a filthy part of town.
His mother is a maid for one of the city's wealthiest families, and Edwards was sent to school by her employer, Capt. August Robertson (Grainger Hines). Robertson shows off the young surgeon before his guests as though he were a prize pupil or pet.
"You will never meet a Negro with as much ability and ingenuity as this one," he says, oblivious to the look of rage and shame on his trophy's face.
The surgeon's gravest social transgression is to act on his attraction to Robertson's daughter, Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), who reciprocates.
Cornelia's progressive views on race win her no friends at the Knick. When her father asks her to serve as his proxy on the board, the other members all but rebel. Thackery is dismissive of her.
Newly wed in the second season, Cornelia, who has moved to San Francisco, tries to help Chinese workers in that city's slums. She simmers when her father-in-law tells her she must concentrate on her true job, being a dutiful wife.
The Knick features an array of rich female characters, none more fascinating than Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), a Catholic nun and midwife who takes off her habit when she goes out at night to perform secret abortions.
Salem likewise is distinguished by fascinating, complex women. Now in it second season, WGN's 17th-century horror yarn stars Janet Montgomery as Mary Sibley, the daughter of a poor Puritan family who sells her soul to the devil in exchange for witchy powers.
Salem portrays a world where women like Mary have no role in local government and are not allowed to inherit property. Their power comes from the only means at their disposal - sex and magic. Yet the series never demonizes Mary, who is portrayed as a deeply conflicted, tortured woman who still possesses the power to love.
The Brits: Social realism
Dickens' true heirs today work in British television, which has had a long tradition of programs that provide three-dimensional representations of characters from the lower classes. From Upstairs Downstairs in the late 1970s to Downton Abbey today, these dramas aren't afraid to portray the class struggle that defines so much of British life.
Downton, which returns for its sixth and final season early next year, is set at a grand country estate as it changes over the years, from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the eve of World War II in the 1930s.
The fifth season is set in 1924, when Ramsay MacDonald formed the nation's first Labour Party government. He knew the conditions of working-class people, and most of the estate's servants applaud his election.
Not so the aristocrats.
"They stand for the destruction of our people and all we stand for," proclaims the drama's patriarch, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville).
His loyal butler, Carson (Jim Carter), passionately defends Crawley's vision of England against changes already underway under the Labour government, championing the very system that has taught him his only use in life is to be a servant.
"I feel a shaking of the ground I stand on," he says, "that everything I believe in will be tested and held up for ridicule over the next few years."
There's plenty of humor but very little ridicule in Downton Abbey and The Knick. They belong to a growing body of period dramas shaped by the conviction that real social change requires us to revisit, reevaluate, and reenvision our past.