Review: A&E “Coma” Struts Big Name Actors but Lacks Credibility

A&E’s new miniseries, “Coma,” which airs tonight and tomorrow is based on Robin Cook’s 1977 medical thriller of the same name.

Lauren Ambrose, 34, remembers Cook’s skin-crawling novel “was kind of in everybody’s house” during her childhood, but she otherwise came to the story with a clean slate. Originally drawn to the script because Susan was “[a tough] and a very driven young woman,” the former “Six Feet Under” star admits “Coma” “was definitely a new role for me. Usually the women are supporting the man in figuring it out. In this case, it was the opposite. … To be able to do ‘woman on a mission’ was different and appealing.”

Ambrose has the job of being credibly terrified in a story that’s not very credible. Ambrose, though, anchors the tale competently enough, which frees the big-name cast that surrounds her to have a garishly good time.

“Coma,” is about a sinister hospital where patients undergoing relatively minor surgery fall into comas with disturbing frequency. In this latest telling the hospital is in Atlanta, rather than Boston as in the novel, but the location doesn’t matter. This institution is a universal nightmare created out of the fear we all have of turning our fate over to strangers whose superior knowledge we have to take on faith.

Ambrose plays Susan Wheeler, a medical student who, while training at the hospital, realizes that something nefarious is going on. She is particularly suspicious of the institution where the comatose, brain-dead patients are sent, a secretive place presided over by a fearsome-looking woman with a penchant for striking poses reminiscent of “Bride of Frankenstein” and “Mommie Dearest.” Ellen Burstyn is a hoot in the role, one of several veteran actors in this mini-series who, under Mikael Salomon’s direction, prove that understatement is often the best route to over-the-top.

Others include Richard Dreyfuss as a seemingly benign professor, Geena Davis as the hospital’s head of psychiatry and James Woods as the chief of staff.

All of them look older and more washed-out than you might remember. They are older, of course, but the washed-out part is deliberate, giving the proceedings a Vincent Price tone. This is no B movie, though; the production, from Ridley and Tony Scott (one of Tony Scott’s final projects before his suicide last month), has a high-budget look to go with the high-budget cast.

Unfortunately the story, adapted by John J. McLaughlin, still has the rickety feel of a cheap summer novel, with lots of implausible actions and plotlines that aren’t tied together very well. Most of those coma patients seem to have remarkably docile relatives who don’t ask many questions (lazily explained away by fat hush-money checks). And for a smart medical student, Susan is remarkably dumb, doing her Nancy Drew thing without alerting the authorities or making sure that someone trustworthy (like her love interest, a doctor played by Steven Pasquale) knows where she is.

The novel has been tinkered with and given a veneer of updating — cellphones play a prominent role, and 21st-century medical mumbo-jumbo involving genes and stem cells is tossed about. But it’s an obligatory sort of updating that somehow makes the central premise seem more preposterous than ever. The medical world of 2012 is still foreboding, but the terrors aren’t monolithic so much as microscopic: the stress of insurance coverage and co-pays; the growing fear that the genetic tendency the lab tests for today will turn into an ethical issue tomorrow; the nagging knowledge that the miracle medicines you’re prescribed might be influenced by your doctor’s financial interests.

So perhaps the best way to view this sometimes entertaining, sometimes infuriating “Coma” is as a metaphor. It’s unlikely that such a hospital exists, but the horrors of navigating the health care system and of retaining personal control over medical care in the biotech age are as real as can be.

“I think I’ll use the 8s,” Ms. Burstyn’s character says as she selects the tool she will employ to impose an unwanted medical intrusion on poor Susan. “The 10s might shatter her pelvis.” The details are gleefully left to the viewer’s imagination, where plenty of medically induced fears already reside.

Before director Mikael Salomon can let an ounce of actual paranoia enter his production, Susan is off on a thankless series of discoveries and near-misses. As you might expect, the closer that Susan gets to the truth about her hospital’s patient record and what might be happening at the Jefferson Institute, the more powerful people want to keep her quiet. Salomon and his team leave a few question marks as to which of the power figures circling this unraveling conspiracy are the actual bad guys but things get really silly when the house of cards starts to collapse. One character is attacked in the most bizarre and implausible murder attempt I’ve seen in a very long time but that’s nothing compared to when Susan makes a crucial connection and decides to text her discovery to another character. She texts! If you thought you were on to something that would make front page news and change hundreds of lives, don’t you think you could at least make an actual call?

In all seriousness, this is a minor complaint but there are far more broad ones I could levy at this disappointing production. Overall, the piece just doesn’t have any personality. Crichton and Cook brilliantly exploited that fear that we all have when we submit to being put under anesthesia. How do we know we can trust the people who now have complete control over our bodies? How can we be certain we’ll come back? As he so often did, Crichton painted a scary vision of a future where one of the most essential authority figures of our lives — doctors — could no longer be trusted.

The 2012 “Coma” could have brilliantly played with how our fears of hospitalization, mortality, and even health insurance costs have changed since the original. It could have, but that would have required more ambition than the going-through-the-motions production we get here. I know I said this is no B movie and I meant it, however, nearly everything that was altered, including a substantially different climax and finale, is dramatically lesser than the original. Sure, things get a little bizarrely morbid in the final act but it’s too little too late. Before that, “Coma” is a lifeless mix of routine TV mystery filmmaking. It’s more than a wasted opportunity. It’s a waste of time.

Coma airs on A&E, Monday and Tuesday nights at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.

Produced by Sony Pictures Television for A&E Network. Directed by Mikael Salomon; written by John J. McLaughlin, based on the novel by Robin Cook and the film by Michael Crichton; Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, David W. Zucker, Martin Erlichman and Mr. Salomon, executive producers.

WITH: Lauren Ambrose (Susan Wheeler), Steven Pasquale (Dr. Mark Bellows), Geena Davis (Dr. Agnetta Lindquist), James Woods (Dr. Stark), Ellen Burstyn (Mrs. Emerson), Richard Dreyfuss (Professor Hillside), James Rebhorn (Oren), Joe Morton (Nelson), Michael Weston (Peter Arno) and Joseph Mazzello (Geoffrey Fairweather).


Contributor D. Chandler

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