September 4, 2012



Not every novel needs to be a 4-hour miniseries, and a good example is A&E’s new version of COMA.  Robin Cook’s novel was capably filmed in 1978 by Michael Crichton in a brisk 113 minutes, and extending the story by more than an hour (once commercials are removed) does nothing but protract a tale that was pretty creaky to begin with.

This time around, Susan Wheeler, the spunky med student who knows that something is going on at Memorial Hospital–now in Atlanta (for tax credit reasons), not Boston–is played by Lauren Ambrose.  (Genevieve Bujold handled the duties in 1978.)  Ambrose, who hails mostly from indie film and the indie-TV drama Six Feet Under, brings a welcome hint of off-beat presence to what is otherwise a very routine part; literally within minutes of our meeting Susan, she’s shown herself to be the only one who cares about a poor Alzheimer’s patient who’s been left alone in a hospital hallway, and before long she’s the only one trying to save a young Hispanic boy who’s choking to death.   Susan is instantly suspicious of the otherwise healthy young men and women who are falling into comas at the hospital, but of course no one will believe her.  Her only support comes from boyfriend-to-be Dr. Mark Bellows (Steven Pasquale, soon to be seen in the far worse medical thriller Do No Harm, in the Michael Douglas part), who is himself introduced saving Susan’s life when she almost drowns at a local swimming pool.  Coma isn’t one for subtlety.

Because of the show’s extended length, it takes almost the entire first 2 hours for Susan to conduct some plodding investigations and get inside the Jefferson Institute, which fans of the novel and original film will recognize as the locus of the story’s evil.  It’s here that the comatose victims are kept, at suspiciously low cost, for the rest of their lives, and the place is run by Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Emerson, who with an Elsa Lanchester wig, a leg brace and enough hamminess for a one-woman show of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, finally livens things up.  Burstyn, who’s been on a tear lately with meaty roles in The Mighty Macs, Big Love and Political Animals, has more vitality at age 79 than anyone else on screen.

At the other end of the vitality spectrum is Geena Davis, who as a villainous psychiatrist/neurosurgeon has a face so immobile that it bespeaks medical horrors as great as those the movie is about.  Joe Morton, Richard Dreyfuss and James Woods are other untrustworthy members of the profession circling around.

John J. McLaughlin’s script (he was one of the credited writers on Black Swan) doesn’t add enough complications to make the running time reasonable, as the basic story is all too straightforward:  an unusual number of people are lapsing into comas at Memorial Hospital, they’re all being transported to the Jefferson Institute, hence something is rotten at the Hospital and Institute.  Susan will have to find the proof before she herself is rendered permanently unconscious, and the odds are that she–just barely–will.   Mikael Salomon’s direction swivels between a relatively realistic look for the hospital scenes and the more high-tech spookiness of the Institute, without providing anything really distinctive in either style.

Coma has been smartly scheduled for the Labor Day period when the networks are in political convention limbo between the end of their summer programming and the start of the fall season, and the other cable networks are winding down as well, so it could well find an audience.  Nevertheless, it’s about as bland and predictable as a story about mass medical atrocities can be.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."