Review by C.J. Bunce

A&E’s Coma is coming soon to a TV near you.  The two-night mini-series updates both the original Robin Cook novel and the Michael Crichton adaptation to film from 1978 with the realities of modern medical technology and a new story.  Considering the movie Coma didn’t do all that well (it had to duke it out for moviegoers’ attention against the likes of Superman, Grease, Halloween, Animal House, Every Which Way but Loose, Foul Play and Invasion of the Body Snatchers), it’s a curiosity for a remake in 2012.  Not so much science fiction as medical procedural drama with a horror twist, it also is not a suspense/thriller so much as a steadily plotted mystery where the story is revealed throughout the two episodes instead of waiting for a big gotcha at the end.

Coma will also go down as one of the last productions of the late Tony Scott, who served as executive producer with brother Ridley Scott.

The mini-series follows a medical student who, on her first day interning at a hospital, uncovers information that could unravel the secret behind the coma patient care facility called the Jefferson Institute.  A&E pulled out all the stops on its Coma Conspiracy campaign.  See our coverage earlier this month here.  The marketing campaign also included mock footage of a clandestine group of individuals who learn the truth about Jefferson.  Unfortunately these marketing bits don’t make it into the actual series, and the producers missed an opportunity to take the folks trying to uncover the conspiracy through their own media and factoring it into the story.

If you have seen the original movie or read the novel, you may find yourself waiting for certain things to happen to certain characters that never quite transpire.  Erase all preconceptions and you will find this to be a fun TV adaptation, and whereas I don’t think it matches the blood pumping scares of the 1978 movie, you’ll find something here that makes the show well worth adding to your DVR list.  And you may be surprised at the level of consideration given to real-world subjects, medical care in particular.  Be prepared for the writers to touch on ethical and moral considerations of topics from the use of stem cells for researching new diseases, to problems with organ donation processes, to human research, to the challenges of overpopulation and an aging society that lives longer than its predecessors.  But it’s not all about that—it will get you into full-on horror mode by show’s end, including the inclusion of some special effects gore you won’t find in a typical A&E mini-series of years past.  Its special effects do offer some sci-fi influences, but the most impactful scenes include a montage where families of coma patients meet with their loved ones at the Jefferson facility.  Some of the series is sure to give you the willies, the wiggins, the creeps, or even the heebie-jeebies.

The best feature can be found in the young cast members, along with a few noteworthy performances by long-time character actors.  I found I liked James Woods’ performance above all the others from the older set.  What the writers did with his character, Dr. Howard Stark, was an interesting twist on Richard Widmark’s similar character in the original movie.  Richard Dreyfuss turns in a believable stock performance as a near-retirement medical school professor.  Ellen Bursytn turns in a very different take on Jefferson Institute administrator Mrs. Emerson, compared to the uber-creepy Elizabeth Ashley in the original movie role.  Yet Burstyn’s character is still as vile as she needs to be, just in a Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham kind of way.  A smaller role, a smart cop named Detective Jackson played by Michael Pniewski, really brought some gravitas to the last part of the series.  Geena Davis’s Dr. Lindquist doesn’t quite work, however.  She’s a researcher who has a strange predilection for medical interns and her storyline could have been handily cut from the series.

As for the younger acting crowd, Michael Weston (House, M.D.) continues to impress, here as a psychotic sociopath under the care of Dr. Lindquist.  Joseph Mazello, who played the young boy in Jurassic Park, is all grown up and shows he made it past the kid actor phase and could easily start taking on leading male roles.  But the really solid performance comes from Steven Pasquale (Rescue Me) as Dr. Mark Bellows, who one could see carrying an ongoing series based on this mini-series.  The star of Coma is Lauren Ambrose, who has been steadily building her career with good roles in Law and Order, Torchwood, and Six Feet Under.  Unfortunately she is stuck here in a typical “horror female” lead role, which sometimes means stepping into situations your average medical student would likely avoid in real life.  Still, she performs the role of medical student intern well and is as good as Bujold in the original.

At times I thought the series should be longer, maybe divided over more than two episodes like a typical mini-series–I’d think the creators could have edited together maybe three or four episodes here.  Then again that could result from simply watching the screening copy without commercial breaks.  Either way, I would have no problem sticking with these characters and situations were it to become a full-blown ongoing series.

Coma, A&E’s two-night television event, premieres Monday, September 3, 2012, at 9pm ET/PT and concludes Tuesday, September 4, at 9pm ET/PT.

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