Add Steven Soderbergh to the growing chorus of Hollywood types singing the praises of television as a superior creative outlet.

The acclaimed director, who last year famously announced that he wanted to free himself from the constraints of studio filmmaking, has embraced TV in a big way. He directed all 10 Season 1 episodes of "The Knick" (10 p.m. Friday, Cinemax), a riveting period drama. And he already has signed on to direct 10 more for a second season.

So much for that "retirement."

"I knew that if I said 'no,' the second person who read it would say 'yes,' " Soderbergh said of his initial reaction to the script. "My whole life, I've moved in any direction that I felt was going to excite me and engage me. It's unfortunate that people have to listen to me talk about continuing to work, but I'm glad I did."

This image released by Cinemax shows Clive Owen, right, in a scene from "The Knick," a 10-episode hospital drama premiering Friday at 10 p.m. EDT
This image released by Cinemax shows Clive Owen, right, in a scene from "The Knick," a 10-episode hospital drama premiering Friday at 10 p.m. EDT on Cinemax. (AP Photo/Cinemax, Mary Cybulski) ( Mary Cybulski )

"The Knick" is a medical melodrama, but it's about as far from "Grey's Anatomy" as you can get. Set in 1900 at a fictional New York City hospital called the Knickerbocker, it follows pioneering surgeons and nurses who push the boundaries of medicine in an era of relatively archaic conditions and stunningly high mortality rates.

Leading the way is Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), a brilliant -- and abusive and arrogant -- chief of surgery whose weakness for cocaine has yet to impede his relentless quest for medical discovery.

"Thackery is forcing himself into the future," Jack Amiel, co-creator of "The Knick," told journalists at the recent TV critics press tour. "He's the bow of every boat he ever has been on. Cocaine allows him to not look back. It helps (him) to forget the body count ... and have the courage to move forward."


Advertisement

Owen insists that he wasn't initially interested in making a long-term television commitment, but like Soderbergh, he found "The Knick" and its lead character too compelling to resist.

"The challenging and exciting thing about the character is that he's not (someone) who's going to take people by the hand and lead them gently through a medical drama set in 1900," Owen said. "He's a very complex, difficult character. He's kind of redeemed by the fact that he's brilliant and he's passionate.

"He's about trying to forward the whole world of medicine and trying to save people's lives, and ultimately, providing a huge service. But he's a very complicated, functioning addict at the same time. So I just love the challenge of that. It's not about being likable (or) making things easy."

Under Soderbergh's direction, "The Knick" is a dark and gritty saga that captures a time of major changes -- not only on the medical front, but in industrialization and race relations.

It's also quite often harrowing in its depiction of primitive -- and gory -- surgical procedures. They definitely aren't for the squeamish, but watching them will make you thankful to be living in the era we do.

This July 10, 2014 photo shows actor Clive Owen posing during press day for the HBO Series, "The Knick" in Beverly Hills, Calif. Owen stars as
This July 10, 2014 photo shows actor Clive Owen posing during press day for the HBO Series, "The Knick" in Beverly Hills, Calif. Owen stars as chief surgeon on absorbing hospital drama premiering Friday at 10 p.m. EDT on Cinemax. The 10-episode season is directed throughout by Oscar- and Emmy-winning Steven Soderbergh. (Photo by Casey Curry/Invision/AP) ( Casey Curry )

THE POWER OF THE KILT: Like Cinemax, the cable network Starz continues to search for a show that will bring it some buzz, prestige and ratings amid a TV landscape crowded with more original scripted programming than ever. They might have found it in "Outlander" (9 p.m. Saturday), an epic historical romance with a time-travel element.

The series comes with a built-in, and very passionate, fan base -- the "Outlander" books by Diana Gabaldon have sold more than 25 million copies around the world -- and rests in the capable hands of executive producer Ronald D. Moore of "Battlestar Galactica" fame.

"Outlander" is the story of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a former World War II army nurse who is trying to rebuild her relationship with her husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies), after an extended time apart. But during a trip to Scotland, she is inexplicably whisked back to the unrest of 18th-century Scotland, where she falls into the company of a kilt-clad Highland hottie by the name of Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan).

Claire finds herself in a strange world where her freedom -- and her life -- are threatened. And tensions rise when the war chieftain of Clan MacKenzie forces her to marry Jamie. Talk about an extremely complicated love triangle.

Saturday's opening episode has a frustratingly deliberate pace. But "Outlander" eventually gains traction and becomes good escapist fun with doses of intrigue, suspense and, of course, steamy romance.

It certainly doesn't hurt that the production is oh so easy on the eyes -- from the sumptuous panoramas of the Scotland countryside to the attractive lead performers. Balfe is especially magnetic, infusing her witty character with both a streak of fiery defiance and a fragile vulnerability. Tall, slender and luminous, she has the look of a 1940s big-screen glamour queen.

Contact Chuck Barney at cbarney@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.