Both The Knick and The Borgias have stellar casts, high production values, and came out at roughly the same time. The Borgias ran for three seasons between 2011 and 2013 while The Knick had a two-season run between 2014 and 2015. The Knick received somewhat better reviews and audience approval and I think one of the reasons is building tension.
Now, to be fair, I’ve only seen two episodes of each show at this point so my opinion is definitely open to change. Let’s get started.
What is Building Tension?
At its simplest, building tension is the concept of unresolved conflict. Opposing forces work against each other without a resolution. The longer the conflict continues without a resolution, the greater the tension created. Such tension generally raises audience interest. We wonder who or what will prevail. What will be the resolution?
Naturally, it’s entirely possible to let tension build too long without a resolution, leading the audience to give up on a show where nothing is ever resolved.
Building Tension in The Borgias
I’ll not build any tension. The Borgias really doesn’t do much in the way of building tension. At least in the first two episodes. A problem arises and it’s almost immediately resolved. There is no tension building as we race from one crisis to the next. It’s handled better than in The Ark but not by a lot.
A good example is the first episode as Cardinal Borgia tries to bribe his way to the Papacy. The previous office holder dies, Borgia states his plan. He entreats his sons to make various bribes, and in the third ballot he is elected.
Here there is at least an attempt at creating a little tension by having events unfold over several scenes. Still, the entire thing took maybe twenty minutes of screen time from beginning to end. I personally see this plot taking up an entire season, if not the first two or three episodes.
A better example is the poisoning attempt on Pope Borgia. The assassination plot is not hinted at in any way. There is no tension at all. We find out about it and it’s resolved within five minutes. You’re going to poison my father; I’ll pay you more to poison the cardinal. Ok. Cardinal poisoned.
Another example is Borgia’s affair with Guilia. She confesses in a bawdy fashion, Borgia shows her the secret tunnel, she shows him her secret tunnel. Boom, bang, wham, or words to that effect. There was no building tension at all.
Basically, a problem is revealed and then solved almost immediately. I don’t have time to reflect, to wonder, to determine sides. It’s over almost before I realized it started.
Building Tension on The Knick
Less has happened in two episodes of The Knick than in twenty minutes of the Borgias. The main tension in the first two episodes of The Knick is whether or not Dr. Edwards will be accepted at the hospital. He is a black man and that is unacceptable to chief surgeon Dr. Thackery. He gives Edwards menial and useless tasks.
In the first episode there is a medical crisis and if this show was paced like the Borgias, Edwards would step forward and save the day. In this case, it is Thackery who shows off his prodigious skill impressing Edwards who wishes to learn from the master.
In the second episode there is another opportunity for Edwards to save the day as he recommends a procedure he practiced in Paris. Thackery shoots him down and the patient dies. There is a second patient with the same problem so Thackery dispatches assistants to find the journal in which the procedure is described. That’s where things are left after the second episode. Tension, consider yourself built.
By not resolving the problem immediately I’m left wondering what will happen. Will Thackery continue his stubborn ways or will he allow Edwards to assist, perhaps even perform, the surgery? Will the patient live or die? I don’t know but I’m engaged and in doubt as to the resolution.
By taking things slow The Knick builds tension.
This is also reflected in several other moments of conflict; the electrifying of the building, financial mismanagement, the need for more cadavers, the nun’s little side business. Problems are not revealed in their totality immediately. They build.
This difference in building tension is consciously decided. In The Borgias someone decided that fast-paced resolutions were better. The audience wants one crisis after the next and to have it neatly wrapped up in a speedy fashion.
Meanwhile, in The Knick, the opposite approach is taken. Let’s bring the crisis on slowly, foreshadow, hint, build.
Taking things slow isn’t always the best idea and things do have to move along, but the racing speed of The Borgias is not entertaining to me while I’m totally engrossed in The Knick.