'Coma' will keep you awake, but it misses the point

Robin Cook's second book stormed the nation's best-seller lists 35 years ago, and for very good reason: "Coma" was a deeply spooky medical thriller built on the ethical debate over when to pull the plug on a patient weighed against the primary dictate for all physicians, "First do no harm."

At a time when "we are living in an aging society," as Richard Dreyfuss' character puts it in a new TV adaptation airing at 9 p.m. tonight and Tuesday on A&E, have medical science and physicians "done our job far too well?" Are we living too long, and how much should humans intervene in natural selection when it comes to death, dying and extending life?

Susan Wheeler (Lauren Ambrose, "Six Feet Under") is a young medical student who arrives at Atlanta's Memorial Hospital to begin an internship under the tutelage of hunky young Dr. Mark Bellows (Steven Pasquale, "Rescue Me"). She gets into immediate trouble by caring too much about the patients, although a stern warning from Bellows is followed in short order by "Which side of the bed do you prefer?," despite the fact that he's been getting it on with the hospital's older and imperious chief of psychiatry, Dr. Agnetta Lindquist (Geena Davis, "Thelma & Louise").

Susan becomes alarmed that the hospital has a higher than usual number of patients who lapse into comas. As she digs in to find out why, she gets into more trouble. Fortunately for her fledgling medical career, she seems to have earned the protection of the chief of staff, Dr. Theodore Stark (James Woods), who wants her to do some detective work on the issue and warns her to trust no one, including Bellows. The more she pushes to solve the mystery, the more she endangers herself and others who help her.

She knows the comatose patients are sent to the fortress-like Jefferson Institute and wants to get inside to find out what's happening to them. Not so fast, little missy, warns the institute's Mrs. Emerson, played by Ellen Burstyn, who has a ball hamming it up as a kind of Southern-fried Frau Blücher but doesn't do a lot for the overall credibility of this adaptation.

Director Mikael Saloman and writer John J. McLaughlin aren't interested in playing "body, body, who's got the body" for long, though, as they reveal the gist of the central mystery too early. From then on, the miniseries is all about whether Susan and maybe Bellows can get inside the Jefferson Institute. The show, produced by Ridley Scott and his late brother, Tony, makes a brief return to the ethical issues at the end, but since they've been sidelined for much of the previous three-plus hours, we haven't been inspired to care about them.

There's also no real mystery about who among the medical staff is on the right side of the ethical street and who's not. So little effort is invested in character development that when one major figure is revealed to be the evil brains behind the operation of inducing comas in surgical patients, our response is something akin to "tell me something I don't already know."

Even Stark's warning that Susan shouldn't trust Bellows rings hollow. Given his agility in jumping from Agnetta's bed to Susan's, it might be advisable for Susan to rethink whether he's really boyfriend material, but as an ally in solving the mystery? Not an issue.

In both Cook's novel and the equally gripping 1978 film adaptation by Michael Crichton (like Cook, a physician), ethical issues were metaphorically embodied in the characters of several doctors, who may have started out merely harvesting organs from deceased patients, but moved into hastening the process and, thus, taking medicine's God complex to a new level.

Not knowing who was "good" and who was "bad" drove home to readers of the novel and viewers of Crichton's film the reality of how contemporary life and medical advances test the limits of ethical conduct. It also kept us on the edges of our seats, even if our seat was just a beach towel where we were reading Cook's novel.

For the most part, the crucial element of the unknown is missing from the A&E miniseries, reducing the film to a moderately engaging whodunit with expansive credibility gaps in plot and character.

The performances help make it watchable, though, especially Ambrose's - she is completely convincing as the crusading young med student. Pasquale is appealing and almost succeeds in papering over the yawning holes in his character's makeup but ultimately falls short. It's not just that he's in bed with Agnetta early in the evening and winds up in bed with Susan later that night: It's that we're led to believe part of the reason he's sleeping with Agnetta is to advance his career, and that makes him less than heroic. Woods is fine, Davis is an acceptable cartoon of "Dr. Dominatrix," and Dreyfuss is properly professorial as Professor Hillside, an old colleague of Susan's late grandfather.

The special effects get a passing grade, but just that. Again, the suspended comatose patients in Crichton's film were shocking and creepy. In the new film, they look rather like freshly laundered shirts on a dry cleaner's conveyor belt, and that's disappointing because medical science isn't the only thing that's advanced in the past 35 years.

The Scott brothers, their writer and director have fiddled with some of the elements of Cook's book, but we can easily live with the story taking place in Atlanta instead of Boston and some other adjustments. The bigger mistake is seeing the story as just a gussied-up mystery. That may make "Coma" passably enjoyable, but it doesn't make it very scary.

Sure, it'll keep you awake while it's airing, but the earlier film and Cook's classic novel kept you up all night long.


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