ADVERTISEMENT

He wakes up in a whorehouse. To say that Dr. John Thackery looks the worse for wear is woeful understatement. He looks like death warmed over. Still dressed in yesterday’s clothes, he’s the very wreckage of respectability.

It’s New York City in 1900. There is nothing the slightest bit quant about “Ol’ New York” in this vision of the turn of the last century. When you take a ride in a horse-drawn cab, you’re liable to pass by another horse lying in the middle of the street – either dead or almost dead.

Dr. Thackery tells his cab driver to take him to “The Knick” – The Knickerbocker Hospital, where he is the brilliant assistant chief of surgery. He also tells him not to rush. There is, apparently, a little task inside the horse-drawn cab he must attend to first.

He takes off his shoes and socks and injects cocaine between his toes. He’s that kind of addict, i.e., the veins in his arms have collapsed and left him no place to inject. When, later on, he’s so strung out from trying to kick cold turkey, he has to order a nurse to inject the drug into his urethra.

The veins in his toes can’t be used anymore either.

Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick” is exceptional television. Never mind that Cinemax might well have thought it was throwing it away during the “dog days of summer.” It’s no throwaway.

That was how the show began in its premiere episode Friday. It’s a nightmare version of a struggling hospital in 1900 that is one of the few places in town trying to get the edge on poverty, disease and misery.

It’s as if the surreal, post- “Catch 22” comedy had been sucked out of “St. Elsewhere” and the romantic melodrama out of “Chicago Hope,” and the healing arts had been taken back more than a century to a time when electricity was just getting a foothold (to suction the blood from surgical cavaties during a procedure, a man has to create the suction manually with a hand crank; when so much blood accumulates that the surgeon can’t see what he’s doing, he barks angrily at the fellow at the crank to “put your back into it.”)

We learned of the brilliance of Dr. Thackery at the end of Friday’s episode. By then, his neurotic self-destructive unpleasantness and idealistic defeatism had become a given.

He’s this kind of man: When his mentor dies of suicide, he takes his place and despairs of ever being worthy of it.

And when the hospital appoints a brilliant black physician educated at Harvard to take his old job, he fights it tooth and claw – on the grounds of patients’ prejudice, you understand, not his own.

TV loves hospitals. You might rather not even think about them if you don’t have to, but TV always has loved them.

But when, before “The Knick,” has it ever located it in an urban world you can practically smell – and one that doesn’t smell particularly good either?

Dr. Thackery is played by Clive Owen, an actor who, for HBO purposes, made for a perfectly dreadful Ernest Hemingway but now gets to relish the opportunity to play the kind of angry eloquence and depressed idealism that is mother’s milk for British actors.

That’s not all you’re seeing in “The Knick” either; the medical procedures in 1900 look brutal. The syringes may be silver-plated and the medical instruments may gleam in the afternoon sunlight, but the procedures are bloody, brutal and beholden to luck and death every bit as much as they are beholden to science.

This is not a world you want to be in when told you’re dying of tuberculosis. And when you are, you’ll still likely insist that your preteen child be able to leave your side so that she can be on time for her shift at the factory.

Here, every second and minute of it, is something made by Steven Soderbergh, the great American film director who first arrived with “sex, lies, and videotape,” won an Oscar for himself for “Traffic” and one for Julia Roberts for “Erin Brockovich” and claimed a while ago to have retired.

Right after his Liberace film for HBO, that is.

Well, then came this thing for Cinemax.

Retired? Translation: He wasn’t going to play Hollywood film games anymore. If, on the other hand, cable TV came calling and gave him a chance to do something at all interesting, he’d take it.

I can’t tell you that Soderbergh’s portrait of disease and medical failure is easy to watch, but Owen is terrific, and the period production design is near-miraculous – even more impressive than BBC’s “Copper” and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”

This is what television now means in what people are calling its Third Golden Age: No major talent has to be condemned by the rules of the megaplex anymore.

Nor, for that matter, does it have to play by TV’s rules anymore – not when premium cable seems up for anything (especially if a historical period is involved) and when Netflix and the Internet offer alternatives of all shapes and sizes and flavors.

There are no “dog days of summer” anymore. Not in movie theaters or on TV, either.

Sean Bean has whipsawed back and forth between movies (“Lord of the Rings”) and television (“Game of Thrones”) and now arrives Wednesday in a part that offers even more exhibitionistic juice for a high-horsepower British actor than Dr. Thackery does for Clive Owen in “The Knick.”

The name of the new TNT show is “Legends.” When you first see Bean in “Legends,” he’s a dweeby-looking rural reject with a stutter who’s complaining because he can’t get any face time with the “Founding Father” of a White Supremacist “Citizens Army of Virginia.”

No, he’s not a white supremacist. He’s an undercover agent in the FBI’s Deep Cover Operations who has, in fact, been undercover for six months trying to bring that “Founding Father” to justice.

He’s been under cover so long that when he writes a long-delayed child support check for his ex-wife, he accidentally signs it with his undercover name.

“Legends,” we’re told, is the name given to the fictional tales assumed by deep undercover operatives to convince bad guys. Dweeby, stuttering white supremacist is only the first such false identity he’ll assume.

Down the road are “Serbian extremist, a Scottish soccer club executive, a corrupt Chicago police officer, British special forces colonel and a legendary computer hacker.”

The whole thing was invented by spy novelist Robert Littell and comes to us from the deep-cover TV kitchen of producer Robert Gordon (“Homeland,” “24”).

What that means is that our identity-juggling deep-cover investigator is himself one day beset by a fellow who beats the tar out of him and tells him that he isn’t who he thinks he is.

He thinks his name is Martin Odum but apparently he could, in reality, be anyone – Jacob Bourne, Keyser Söze, Rumpelstiltskin, or Justin Bieber.

This, needless to say, is unsettling.

The show is pretty good, especially in its opportunity for Bean to do the kind of thespian exhibitionism that hammy British and American actors have been doing on TV since the early days of TV gave them “playhouse” formats in which to play all sorts of wildly divergent roles from week to week. (Or, by the same token, gave them premises that involved them getting into disguises and different roles every week a la “The Rogues” and “The Wild Wild West”).

What it means for a lot of us is that we just can’t count on TNT anymore for a certain level of audience-pleasing mediocrity (a la “Rizzoli and Isles” these days).

Quality can sneak in anyplace.

Just when you least expect it, things like “Legends” are likely to come along on Wednesday– or Stephen Bochco’s “Murder in the First Degree” ends its season tomorrow with, we’re told, a mind-bending plot revelation.

After Cinemax, Lord only knows where Stephen Soderbergh will turn up.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com