‘Coma’ Miniseries Recap: “They’re Not Really Alive, But They’re Not Dead Either”

Last week’s broadcast of the A&E network’s star-studded, much-hyped miniseries event ‘Coma’ was perhaps overshadowed by the sudden death of producer Tony Scott just two weeks earlier. I wish I could say that the program was strong enough to earn attention on its own merits, but unfortunately, it’s something of a snoozer.

The two-part miniseries is based on a 1977 potboiler novel by Robin Cook, which had already been adapted into a movie starring Michael Douglas back in 1978 by sci-fi author and occasional filmmaker Michael Crichton. I haven’t seen the old movie in ages, but I remember it being fairly entertaining, if far-fetched. (Our Blu-ray reviewer David, who watched it more recently, agrees with that assessment.) Nonetheless, it hardly seemed like the kind of thing that needed to be revived or updated at all, much less bloated out to a four-hour length (including commercials).

The miniseries was produced by both Tony and Ridley Scott, and directed by former cinematographer Mikael Salomon (‘The Abyss’, ‘Backdraft’), who had similarly remade another Crichton property (‘The Andromeda Strain’) into a cable miniseries a few years ago. If I can make a suggestion, he might try tackling something like ‘Sphere’ or ‘Congo’ next. Those were botched as movies and could use fresh adaptations more than the two he’s already done. Or better yet, considering the results of this one, just leave well enough alone.

Lauren Ambrose from ‘Six Feet Under’ stars as nosy medical student Susan Wheeler, who finds it disturbing that her hospital has an unusually high rate of patients falling into comas. Her concern does not seem to be shared by many of her superiors. As Susan goes snooping into the hospital’s records, she uncovers a conspiracy to deliberately put patients with certain genetic types into comas so that they can be shipped off to the shady Jefferson Institute. Head of Psychiatry Dr. Lindquist (Geena Davis) appears to be at the forefront of this nefarious plot. At least somewhat aiding Susan’s efforts are Lindquist’s boy-toy Dr. Bellows (Steven Pasquale from ‘Rescue Me’) and the morally ambiguous Chief of Surgery, Dr. Stark (James Woods). Even among her friends, Susan isn’t sure whom she can trust.

In Episode 2, Susan breaks into the Jefferson Institute, which is run by evil administrator Mrs. Emerson (Ellen Burstyn). At this point, the miniseries kicks into sci-fi territory when we learn that all the coma victims have been impaled on elaborate high-tech shish-kabob skewer contraptions so that they can be processed on an automated assembly line and used as unwilling test subjects for illegal medical experiments. Surprising no one in the audience, Susan eventually discovers that kindly Professor Hillside (Richard Dreyfuss) is the evil mastermind behind this scheme. After a perfunctory “Talking Killer” monologue and some rote chase and fight sequences, Susan kills Mrs. Emerson, Hillside is arrested, and Lindquist escapes to China where she can start the whole thing up again.

Somewhere in the middle of all this is a subplot about Lindquist’s henchman, a delusional psycho killer she keeps on the hospital payroll as a janitor to clean up loose ends like Susan. In a reasonably suspenseful (if implausible) scene, he stalks the girl through an empty research lab while hallucinating about surreal CG trees until she tricks him and locks him in a walk-in freezer for corpses.

I should also mention that the miniseries opens with a suicide. I’m sure that no one involved with the production (save perhaps Tony Scott himself) could have foreseen this being a problem, and it was too critical a plot point to redact, but it makes for an uncomfortable start to the program.

The miniseries is slickly-made but far too by-the-numbers. While all of the actors do a competent, professional job, none of their characters are particularly interesting and their dialogue never rises above banal. The plot is extremely predictable. At no point is it ever a surprise that the comas are deliberate or that bad things are afoot at the Jefferson Institute. A major action set-piece involving a car crash makes no logical sense at all. (How would anyone believe that the crash was an accident if the car has giant forklift holes through it? Was there really no one else on the road or in the area who saw the forklift pick up the car and toss it off a bridge?) It’s also unclear whether the final scene in which Bellows receives a text from Lindquist in China is intended to be a plot twist that he’s really evil and still working for her, or nothing of the sort. A plot twist isn’t terribly effective if you’re not even sure that it is a plot twist. And if it is, then how does that reconcile with any of the character’s previous actions?

In short, there’s nothing special about ‘Coma’ that merits investing so much time with it. The miniseries is almost as lifeless as its title implies.

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