Coma (A&E TV Mini-Series)
Directed by Mikael Salomon
Based on a 1977 novel by Robin Cook, which was itself adapted to film a year later with Geneviève Bujold and Michael Douglas, Coma is an upcoming two-night mini-series on A&E that's due to begin this Labor Day. Produced by Ridley and Tony Scott’s Scott Free Productions and featuring a superb cast, great cinematography, and an intriguing premise, Coma seems destined to rule the ratings for its time slots. But does the show’s quality live up to its promise?
Night One, airing Monday at 9pm ET, concerns Susan Wheeler (Ambrose), a compassionate young medical student who discovers some rather strange goings-on at Memorial Hospital, where she serves as an intern. It seems that several healthy young people have gone into comas after receiving routine surgeries, for what appears to be no discernible reason. No one seems to care much (or indeed, raises too much fuss), with the exception of one Dr. Mark Bellows (Pasquale), who pays just enough attention to Wheeler’s claims to become interested in her growing conspiracy theories surrounding the comas. Their unofficial investigation leads them to the Jefferson Institute, a medical facility which has ties to Memorial and specializes in caring for comatose patients. Before long, the two find themselves running afoul of the medical elite that run Memorial, along with a mysterious stalker who attacks Susan and leaves cryptic origami trees for her as some sort of warning. It seems no one wants Wheeler or Bellows to discover the truth behind the rash of comas, the link between Memorial and Jefferson, or the horrifying nature behind Jefferson’s real research.
With the exception of one nagging issue (which I’ll get to), this first half of Coma is an enjoyable ride, full of energy and tension. The cast is just fantastic, it looks great, and its central mystery is pretty fascinating, right up to its shocker of a reveal at the climax (featuring an indelible image which, sadly, has been ruined in every damn bit of marketing for the show). It’s solid viewing, with the exception of that aforementioned niggle: Coma opens with a well-produced (and very Tony Scott-ish) YouTube video created by what seems to be an underground movement attempting to expose the core secret behind the Jefferson Institute. This video is readily available for those willing to watch. Pair that with the fact that several people have lapsed into unexplained comas at a hospital that soon shuttles the comatose to Jefferson, and…well, dammit, did young Susan Wheeler and Doctor Bellows really need to look into this conspiracy in the first place?! Why is it that no one else had asked any questions before this point? Sure, both Memorial and Jefferson have a good deal of power when you’re under their roof (or scalpel), but what about the police? The grieving families? Did no one think to hire a lawyer or private investigator? In this day and age? Seriously?!
Still, that issue aside (which is considerable), Night One of Coma is still worth a watch. Unfortunately, Night Two is where things really run off the rails. It’s within this final half of the story (airing the following evening) that we discover several characters have been ultimately useless. In fact, there is a subplot involving three of Wheeler’s fellow med students that goes absolutely nowhere.
Oh, and then there’s that ominous YouTube video that opens the film, which blows the whistle and leads one to believe that there’s some ragtag team already attempting to take down Jefferson Institute. Yeah, that goes nowhere as well. Then there’s the entire lack of an antagonist for the bulk of the running time. Once the threat that presents itself during Night One’s cliffhanger is…erm, neutralized (trying not to be spoilery), Coma flounders for a tangible threat to hurl at our heroes. Unfortunately, the best they can come up with is the creepy hired stalker that’s employed to take Wheeler out. Lame.
Then there’s the ending. Sigh. The denouement is just head-slappingly bad, with a great actor treated to a Scooby-Doo unveiling (and doing his/her damnedest to sell it), while another respected thesp somehow manages to keep a straight face while wielding a syringe at our heroine in a sewer drain. All this topped off by an ending that attempts one final surprise, only to fall flat on its face.
For all of these flaws, perhaps my biggest complaint is that Coma fails to feel complete by the time the final credits roll. With a few dangling plot threads left hanging by the conclusion and the various subplots that set up characters only to abandon them, one wonders if A&E meant for this version of Coma to be less a complete experience and more of a backdoor pilot for a potential long-form series. I’m calling it now – if Coma does gangbusters on Monday night, give it a week before the series pickup announcement.
No complaints can be made with the talent in front of the camera, though. I mean, criminy! Just lookit that cast! Lauren Ambrose is just brilliant, giving a performance that’s a bit more subdued than her previous work in shows like the utterly perfect "Six Feet Under" and last year’s "Torchwood: Miracle Day". Pasquale has the thankless job of filling Michael Douglas’ shoes, and does it well, injecting life into a character who was likely only ever intended to be a blandly handsome hero. Pasquale and Ambrose are great individually, but both are saddled with an unnecessary romantic subplot that neither sells very well (as good as they are, they simply have no chemistry with each other).
James Woods plays against type quite well as a sympathetic and friendly mentor to Ambrose’s Wheeler, while Ellen Burstyn seems to revel in her wickedly villainous role (that’s not a spoiler – she practically twirls an imaginary mustache when first introduced). Unfortunately, Burstyn is given little screen time, which is also the case with Richard Dreyfuss and Geena Davis. Still, these seasoned actors do a wonderful job and make an impact with the small amount of time they have onscreen.
Credit should also go to director Mikael Salomon, who does a great job keeping the pace brisk and the image beautiful. Indeed, Coma has a classy sheen to it, as one would expect from a Scott Free production. If only the same amount of care and attention had been paid to the script, we might have had a show that could be regarded as a high-water mark for genre television. Instead, Coma is merely a well made bit of fluff.
If you have nothing else to watch this Labor Day, you might as well give the first half of this mini-series a look. But if you’re far too easily annoyed with plot holes, lapses in logic, shoddy and convenient writing, and hackneyed twists, you’re probably gonna want to give Night Two (and perhaps the entire thing) a wide berth. If you do ultimately wind up sticking around for that second half, here’s hoping you manage to stay conscious.
3 out of 5
2 out of 5