Coma debuts tonight on A&E at 9 p.m. Eastern. Part two airs Tuesday at the same time.
Coma is bad television. It doesn’t even manage to be enjoyably bad television, the kind of television that lets itself go into farcical plotlines and character tropes without a backward glance. If television has to be bad, let it at least be risky. Or pulpy. Or sexy. Or scary. Let it attempt to do, or be, anything remotely interesting.
Despite a star-studded cast and what looks like a pretty hefty budget, Coma accomplishes nothing. It wants to be a good-bad TV movie, but it fails in almost every capacity. It’s pulpy, but without enough pulp; sexy without any heat; "suspenseful" without much suspense; well-cast but not well-acted, well-produced but not well-directed. It is more boring than entertaining, which fails the first commandment of television, and yes, it could even potentially be coma-inducing. It’s that bad.
In its defense, you can see how it could be a terrifying story. Coma is about a sinister conspiracy to send healthy patients into comas for research purposes. As such, it attempts to reveal the ins and outs of the American medical-industrial complex, a daunting labyrinth that connects teaching hospitals, medical schools, research institutions, outpatient care, wealthy doctors, and government funding. But nothing in the execution of A&E’s miniseries follows through on what is otherwise a not-terrible premise. This is at least in part because Coma was originally a Robin Cook novel published in 1977, well before medical dramas became a staple on network television. Audiences are much more savvy to medical bureaucracy now. (In fact, the first hour of the miniseries comes off like a cheap Grey’s Anatomy knockoff). The subject matter is going to have to try harder to scare us. Plus, this story has been adapted better before: Michael Crichton turned the novel into a film in 1978, highlighting the novel’s paranoiac themes, while downplaying its feminist ones. Both the film and novel were successful, in their own way, at doing what horror does best: using the manufactured suspense as a platform to discuss a larger, realer, day-to-day fear.
Coma fails most abjectly on the fear factor. Fear relies on the unknown, but the way the teleplay is structured destroys any sort of horror. The first scene is a fake YouTube video, a guerilla “investigation” into the mysterious and shadowy Jefferson Institute, immediately marking the Institute as what’s wrong with the story’s medical landscape. The audience learns this before it even meets the steadfastly boring protagonist, Susan Wheeler. There’s no ambiguity, so there are no stakes. Horror is not given any chance to quietly grow in the background, and paranoia never sets in.
In fact, there is almost no sense of suspense in the whole four hours of the miniseries' running time; the entire thing seems bored with itself, resolved before it’s even started. It drags and limps along, of course, throwing in a “twist” here and there. But there’s nothing skillful about the crafting of the story. No one is betrayed or lulled into a false sense of security. No one is anything but exactly what they seem to be. The story appears to be weary of trivial human foibles, with their loves and hurts; it is more concerned with playing suspenseful music over otherwise mundane scenes.
The basic premise offers some intriguing fodder the miniseries promptly does nothing with. There is something mysterious about the coma rates for surgery patients at Memorial Hospital. Healthy patients who are having routine surgeries are falling into comas and being shipped to the Jefferson Institute to live out their vegetative lives. Intrepid medical student Susan Wheeler, played by Lauren Ambrose, risks life and limb to investigate. The quest takes her to the very top of the hospital’s bureaucracy and into a tepid romance with handsome attending Mark Bellows.
As Susan, Ambrose does show some spunk and ingenuity, but never quite enough to make Susan a character worth rooting for. Her motivations are never clearly defined, besides a vague impulse to “do good.” When Susan isn’t magically sensing patients’ needs and saving choking children off-duty, she’s evading hidden cameras, death threats, and the constant threat of being fired for attempting to learn the truth—running headlong from chase scene to chase scene, desperately seeking one deus ex machina after another. She's no fun to watch.
This is unfortunate, because Lauren Ambrose is a good actor. She may not be great, but she is not bad. Somehow, her talent serves to make Coma even more unwatchable, though. Her presence makes it much harder to laugh at the ridiculous story, the overwrought conclusion. Her realistic reactions and visible emoting make her seem like the only alive character trapped in an otherwise bloodless alternate reality. She’s the fly trapped in the amber of a very bad show.
As the story grinds on, characters lose their (few) subtleties, and the plot becomes increasingly strained. A couple of the so-called “suspenseful” sequences drag on for 10 to 20 minutes in the second half of the series—Susan keeps running away from the bad guys, only to keep running into more and more obstacles. The payoff of the show’s premise happens so late in the second half, it lacks the punch a big reveal ought to have. The audience has been waiting for the reveal for so long that it’s no longer interesting.
Special note must be taken of both Geena Davis and Ellen Burstyn, who are both terrible, despite their considerable talents. Davis plays Dr. Lindstrom, well within the wheelhouse of that somewhat familiar but usually fun character who skirts the line between good and evil. Dr. Lindstrom misses the mark, however, because she is way over-the-top, even for a made-for-TV movie. A neurosurgeon with a Ph.D. in psychiatry (!), Lindstrom is obsessed with finding a cure for dementia and dabbles in having affairs with much younger doctors. This might be interesting, but instead, it falls into the tired, sad trope of sexualizing an older woman to make her seem more “evil.” Worse, Susan is continually presented as her wholesome doppelganger. It’s lazy characterization, and more than that, it’s just not interesting. Davis is wasted on-screen.
Burstyn, meanwhile, plays psychotic prison warden Nurse Emerson, a character that could have had an interesting back-story but mostly seems to be unhinged. Nurse Emerson’s final scene, for what it’s worth, begins to approach the pulpy goodness that makes terrible horror movies worth watching, but it doesn’t get far enough to justify all the time leading up to it. (It is pretty hilarious, though.) Unintentional comedy makes for great television, but in this case, again: too little, too late.
Coma seems to have been written haphazardly in the dark by a distracted author. The story is about as well-developed as the plot of a pornographic film—with none of the porno’s obvious perks.