Fuzzy storytelling wrecks A&E's adaptation of 'Coma'

By Sara Smith

The Kansas City Star (MCT)

Published: Sunday, Sept. 2 2012 5:11 p.m. MDT

Ellen Burstyn, left, as Mrs. Emerson, and Lauren Ambrose as Susan Wheeler in "Coma."

Bob Mahoney, A&e

Enlarge photo»

Poor Lauren Ambrose. People won't stop trying to stick needles in her neck.

The syringes don't come out right away. As third-year med student Susan Wheeler, Ambrose ("Six Feet Under") arrives fresh-faced in scrubs and clogs at Peach Tree Memorial as A&E's "Coma" gets rolling. Susan just wants to save lives and fulfill her vaguely referenced family legacy, but surgical rotation plunges her into toothpaste-green corridors filled with sneering orderlies, conniving classmates and alpha nurses.

The exit signs in this creepy hospital might as well flash: "You're in an urban legend." Good thing Susan has the support of her requisite sassy roommate, who pushes her to "go for it" with that cute Dr. Bellows.

It so happens that Bellows (Steven Pasquale of "Rescue Me") looks like a young Ray Liotta and is one of the few Memorial physicians who is not a malevolent creeper, so Susan takes her friend's advice, and Bellows becomes Susan's reluctant ally as she starts to follow the conga line of comatose customers being wheeled out of Operating Room 8.

Unfortunately for Susan, her classes at Atlanta University (where no one has a Southern accent) didn't teach her to mute her cellphone while snooping in the hospital's ceilings. As her clumsy Nancy Drew antics draw attention, Memorial's chief of staff, Dr. Stark (James Woods), tells her, "Trust no one," a line that implies no one is what they seem.

But the compressed exposition of the two-part show puts everyone's cards on the table right away. Everyone at Memorial is exactly what they seem, as they go about their blatantly corrupt workdays with the subtlety of Dick Tracy villains.

With so much intrigue, so many clandestine meetings and cryptic conspiracy-polishing, there's little time for any actual medicine in this hospital. Watching Susan upstage an apathetic ER doctor on an asthma case is as close as "Coma" gets to an episode of "House" - it's more like a "Grey's Anatomy" where McSteamy tampers with the anesthetic.

Because of this, there's no chance for a shrewd viewer to share Susan's dread when she notices a telling gene sequence on a secret file. Over and over, she grows wide-eyed and trembles as she puts the pieces together, but the diagnostic details and four-syllable words that make for rewarding medical drama have been glossed over.

After wasting no time on science, "Coma" plunges our heroine into an overlong, unpleasant climax. The rate of syringes aimed at her jugular skyrockets after she learns the "Matrix"-like truth about the coma patients.

"They're not really alive," a guardian of the plot tells Susan, paralyzing agent poised. "But they're not dead, either. Someone has to take care of them." Drugged, Susan staggers through a "Jacob's Ladder" factory of horrors. After politely pulling the camera away during knee surgery and front-seat make-out sessions in its first half, "Coma" administers a shocking dose of gore at the end.

What it doesn't provide is relevance as a "modern-day retelling" of Robin Cook's original novel. Even when the final conspirator reveals himself and launches into a self-justifying "the herd must be culled" speech, he just whines about paperwork, bureaucracy and research grants. Nothing that wasn't true in 1978.

Ambrose and the rest of this capable cast don't deserve this fate, suspended in sloppy storytelling until the merciful end comes. A simpler, cleaner story with ties to health care's current woes could have been chilling. Maybe the next time Peach Tree Memorial needs to harvest a human, he could just wake up naked, minus a kidney, in a hotel bathtub full of ice.

A&E's "Coma" is a remake of the 1978 movie, directed by Michael Crichton and starring Michael Douglas, which was based on a best-seller by novelist Robin Cook.

Emmy winner Mikael Salomon, who worked on "Band of Brothers," directed the miniseries, with a script by John McLaughlin, who wrote the screenplay for "Black Swan."

Among the series' producers are Tony Scott, who died last month, and his brother Ridley.

If you watch …

"Coma" begins at 10 p.m. MDT Monday and concludes at 10 p.m. Tuesday on A&E.

Dist. by MCT Information Services

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