KnickS1The Knick: The Complete First Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) is the project to which Steven Soderbergh committed himself after he announced his retirement from filmmaking. So instead of directing a film, he directed all ten episodes of the debut season of this original series, set in a struggling hospital in 1900 New York City, for the pay cable channel Cinemax.

Clive Owen stars as the brilliant, unconventional Dr. John W. Thackery, who takes over as head of New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital (aka The Knick) after his mentor kills himself over a failed operation. He’s a forward-thinking surgeon on the frontier of the science of medicine in a financially-struggling institution in a poor part of the city, devoted to his work and to the advancement of surgical techniques with a passion unequalled in the city. He’s also a cocaine addict and a frequent flier at the local opium den: the former to keep him going for hours on end, the latter to bring him back down.

The series, a medical drama period piece created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (they write eight of the ten episodes themselves), is set in an appropriately combustible period. Medicine is progressing a rapid pace and Thackery wants to be part of the vanguard—there’s some ego involved but he is truly driven to advance surgery—but the city is very much back in the 19th century of graft and prejudice and class division (which makes a cholera outbreak among the city aristocrats a strangely satisfying twist). This is a city of immigrants and social hierarchy, where the ambulance drivers compete for accident victims and claim a bounty for each one they bring to their institutions, where the tough, tart-tongued nun (Cara Seymour) running the hospital orphanage has a sideline performing illegal abortions for the most benevolent of reasons (she’s seen enough unwanted children), and where a talented African-American doctor (André Holland) arrives from training with Europe’s finest only to be shunned by the white establishment despite a talent and drive second only to Thackery.

The entire season is directed by Soderbergh, who is also the cinematographer and editor (under the names Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, respectively), and he shoots it all with an unshowy handheld camera, which gives it both a classical, cinematic look that is just a little nervous and unsteady. He’s always there in the moment and responsive to the energy and tension of the scene, and at key moments his cool observational style becomes aggressive and startling. The period details are rich without becoming distracting and the melodramatic twists and dark sides of the characters (like a hospital administrator striking side deals to pay off a debt and hide his financial malfeasance) makes sure that the criminal element has plenty of play in the show. It’s a vibrant, violent, racy series that is well served by Soderbergh’s focus, which keeps the more flamboyant elements to the service of the story and characters.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD with “Episode Post-Ops” for each episode (brief pieces with the cast and crew that followed the episodes on Cinemax) and commentary tracks on three episodes (including the pilot and the season finale) by the creators and actors (but not Soderbergh or Clive Owen).

JonathanStrangeMrNJonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD), adapted from the dense, richly-woven debut novel by Susanna Clarke, brings a different of approach to fantasy fiction and the idea of magic in the real world. Set in 19th century england, at the start of the Napoleonic Wars, it weaves the tale of two magicians—Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsen), a gentleman and a scholar of the history of English magic, and Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a novice who acts upon a prophecy and discovers a natural ability for magic—within the currents of British history, creating a mix of historical drama, alternate history, and fantasy fiction. The two men bond over a shared love of magic and curiosity to learn more but they clash over philosophy: Norrell wants magic to be proper, a thing for gentleman to practice, and rejects the chaotic, primal legacy of magic in the past (which he unwittingly lets loose while resurrecting the dead wife of a potential government benefactor), while Strange, with the support of his wife (Charlotte Riley), explores the ancient myths of the Raven King and the time of the faeries. Their conflict soon puts them at odds while the demonic faerie (Marc Warren) released by Norrell becomes more destructive. It’s a magnificent love story, a furious battle of wills, a drama of friendship and betrayal, and a story of redemption.

The book has proven too big and complicated to adapt into a feature film (a decade of attempts attest to that) but the mini-series / limited series—seven hour-long episodes, to be specific—appears to be the perfect format and BBC has given it the scope and texture of a film. Director Toby Haynes and screenwriter Peter Harness make some distinctive changes in the relationship between Strange and Norrell and the motivations behind their split (read Kristin Thompson at Observations on Film Art for an excellent comparison between the novel and the series) but the story and scope are well served. Eddie Marsen is marvelous as Norrell, the magician as fussy scholar and socially awkward intellectual while Bertie Carvel brings Strange to life as an eccentric but passionate student who dares experiment and explore. It’s a handsome production with a complicated story and a busy cast of characters and an adult sensibility. Not in terms of sex or R-rated spectacle, mind you—this is all safely in PG territory—but in adult relationships and the negotiations of power and politics and ego.

7 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurette “The Making of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.”

POIS4Person of Interest: The Complete Fourth Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) – This may very well be my favorite show currently on a broadcast network, and after four years it has managed to keep its high-concept premise—a covert homeland security surveillance program identifies potential murders that a private team of operatives attempt to stop—in focus while expanding the series with characters strong and consistently interesting and unpredictable story arcs.

The fourth season takes a dramatic turn as the team—committed computer genius Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), enigmatic former CIA assassin John Reese (Jim Caviezel), ruthless renegade hacker Root (Amy Acker), fellow CIA soldier turned loyal teammate Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi), and reformed NYPD Detective Fusco (Kevin Chapman)—goes underground when the government hands the surveillance state apparatus over to a rival security program run by what is essentially a secret society in the guise of a multinational corporation. This entity targets our heroes for execution to clear the way for their radical social experiment. In the midst of this, they take on a rising criminal ganglord (an unexpectedly fascinating storyline) and search for colleague who may be a prisoner of the new security group. It’s one of the smartest and most carefully constructed thrillers on TV, it engages with the potential of technology for both good and abuse, and it is built on very interesting relationships between the members of the team, from the unconditional devotion of Reese to Finch and to Root’s shift from unwavering service to The Machine to a sense of responsibility to her teammates. And the story builds to a genuinely unexpected conclusion that will send the next season into yet another direction. Unfortunately the next season will be a short one, only 13 episodes, but luckily this is a show that stands up nicely under repeat viewings. This set may help tide me over until the 2016 debut of Season Five.

22 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with two featurettes, the show’s Comic-Con panel, and an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the season (SD for the DVD set).

Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD