When Robin Cook’s novel Coma was published in 1977, it shot up the bestsellers lists. Its tale of corporate conspiracy and medical corruption was hardly great literature, but it resonated with readers, many of whom already had unfavorable impressions of hospitals. A year later came Michael Crichton’s film version of the thriller, popular at the time but forgettable, save for riveting performances of Geneviève Bujold and Richard Widmark.
A&E’s new version looks back but also taps into today’s increasing distrust of the medical industry. The two-part reboot, premiering 3 September, theoretically expands the possibilities for character and story developments. Actually, it only makes the experience more tedious. At least part of the problem is the focus on Susan Wheeler (Lauren Ambrose), a third year medical student whose earnestness soon turns daunting. While her colleagues and friends exchange light banter or have tearful moments, Susan concerns herself solely with her investigation of abnormalities at Atlanta’s Peach Tree Memorial Hospital, where she is an intern, coming across as obsessive and unfeeling to those around her, and to us.
Her fixation begins shortly after Susan begins her stint at Peach Tree, where she is considered a “legacy,” both her father and grandfather being well-respected doctors at the hospital. This inspires resentment in some of her fellow interns, as does her budding romance with Chief Surgical Resident Mark Bellows (Steven Pasquale), but her family also offers temporary protection when she’s distracted by her evolving conspiracy theory. This is initiated when she learns that a patient at the hospital — a young woman she knows (they both swim at a local pool) — has lapsed into a permanent coma, despite being in good health before she was admitted for a routine surgery. This prompts Susan to begin investigating other unexplained comas at the hospital, and yes, she finds the rate is well above average.
The patients who end up in a vegetative state up are sent to the Jefferson Institute, a private facility that tends to their needs and is run by the constantly smiling Mrs. Emerson (Ellen Burstyn, with a thick Southern accent and leg brace). Susan worms her way into a private tour, whereupon she discovers that patients are treated like objects, suspended from spikes and cords and moved around via an assembly line railway. She is dutifully horrified when she learns as well that they are used as organ donors.
This plot will be familiar to anyone who has read Cook’s novel or seen Crichton’s film. As Susan comes to distrust most everyone around her, excepting the boyfriend and Chief of Staff Howard Stark (James Woods), Coma makes our own alliances clear, drawing lines between the good guys and the bad. At the the same time, it raises serious ethical issues facing the medical profession, best expressed in a question posed by one of Susan’s professors (Richard Dreyfuss): “Is it right to devote resources to those who will succumb to some ailment or other, or is it sensible to discover cures for your children, so they’ll have better lives?”
It’s a genuine dilemma, but Coma dramatizes it in predictable fashion, as those making decisions aren’t always altruistic or acting legally. A perfect case to examine in greater detail is that of a patient who arrives at the hospital already in a coma after a suicide attempt. We learn that his condition is self-inflicted, then lose his story to other plotlines, such that Coma doesn’t examine the complicated ethical issues of treating such a patient: even if he seems to have given up his life, not all suicides mean to die, much less give their bodies up for medical uses. The series doesn’t address such questions, instead insisting on our visceral repulsion at doctors putting individuals into comas and suspending them from cables. But in our repulsion, enhanced by sinister soundtrack music and dark hallway shots, we lose sight of contexts and broader questions.
Some of these questions might find context in the current debate over health care in the United States. We might imagine that those pundits and politicians who asserted the threat posed by “death panels” under the Affordable Health Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) might see in this scary story a kind of extreme model. But the vastness of the conspiracy needed to make such a scenario work, involving doctors, administrators, hospital staff, police, and the health insurance industry, is too farfetched, both in reality and fiction.
It’s this last that makes Coma unwieldy. If it had a generic affiliation with other 1970s movies like The Parallax View or The Conversation, its particulars remain unconvincing and worse, revealed too slowly. If only the film had been made by the same people who made the trailer. Part One is all set up for the next one, when the pace picks up, but the very structure of the mini-series leaves open the likelihood that viewers won’t tune in for a second night if the first doesn’t compel their interest. With more time, this Coma might have provided more thrills and chills, and also explored some of the monumental issues raised by changing technologies, corporate interests, and political frameworks. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do any of this.