It’s tempting to rewrite your own past tastes in the best possible light. I’d like to say that the “9 to 5” 45 was not the first record I purchased, and highbrow my way out of my early passion for Stephen King. Even now, though my desire to read everything he wrote waned (around Tommyknockers), I am still suckered by the small and big screen adaptations of his work.
With a few notable exceptions (The Shining, Shawshank Redemption, and Stand by Me), these are uniformly shitty, exposing the arrested development of his craft: his action hero’s sense of humor, his regurgitation of past novels, and his tendency to build up to scare that turns laughable: when the monster appears and looks like a child’s drawing brought to life by a community theater costume department. Still, when I found out that Stephen King would executive produce the 15-hour TV series based on Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom (Riget), I couldn’t help but get my hopes up.
The result, Kingdom Hospital, is (we can only hope) a befuddled retirement party for King’s clichés. From start to finish, the show dodders about like an Alzheimer’s patient on a scavenger hunt, dropping hints, picking up secondary story lines, introducing subplots, and finally laying about unfinished, unfocused, and in a general state of boring decline. To talk of plot here is to give the writers (Richard Dooling and King) credit they can’t claim. The series is essentially a bedpan held under a few of King’s novels mixed in with a few ditched episodes of Scrubs.
Built on the site of some notorious factory fire, Kingdom Hospital has apparently awakened spirits with varying degrees of good and ill intent. Figuring this out might provide a deferred payment for wasting your time on watching it. The keys to divining this mystery come from King’s usual cast of downtrodden ciphers, a hodgepodge of the retarded, the insane, the infirm elderly, the open-minded skeptic, and, of course, the Native American, always granted supernatural mysticism in white people’s fictions, as a backhanded compensation for that whole genocide thing. In addition to the little dead girl who cries in the elevator shaft, patients in Kingdom Hospital are visited by spirits appearing as Sesame Street-like animals: an evil bear that disconnects a man’s breathing tube and an aardvark with a better beside manner. Did I mention that in addition to the spirit animals milling about, the character’s pets also talk? They do, but only in sarcastic one-liners, tossed off as they trot across the screen in this bruisingly dull parade of surrealistic non-sequiturs.
What haunts Kingdom Hospital most is the recurrent intrusion of clumsy, forced humor. No tension develops without a human’s hammy aside or a German Shepherd’s cheeky commentary. When Dr. Jesse James (Ed Begley, Jr.) says, “You know what my son would say? Illness sucks,” or Dr. Stegman (Bruce Davison) comments that “Some people wish rain were beer”, the viewer is left scratching his head, wondering how to place such tone-deaf levity. When Mrs. Druse (Diane Ladd), a slightly daft hypochondriac, tries to explain how the nebulous horror bubbled up into the hospital, any potential scariness is chapped by her conclusion that she heard “a voice coming from Swedenborgian space.”
Is Kingdom Hospital a parody of horror or is Stephen King no longer able to balance fear and laughter? Here both cave into one another, so we feel not apprehension, but detachment. In a good horror text, the characters reveal their personalities and interpersonal conflicts off the bone of a sturdy plot (fending off the living dead, survivors are distracted by their own conflicts.) In Kingdom Hospital, the absence of any defined underpinning leaves the intermittent frictions flailing in dead air. One suspects that a central antagonism will involve a pissing match between Machiavellian administrator Dr. Stegman and impassioned Dr. Hook (Andrew McCarthy), who, after seeing a zombie child, just might be able to help Mrs. Druse find the bitch-list of all these restless dead people. It’s the sort of reductive dichotomy that even our President could understand.
Maybe the creators of Kingdom Hospital should have lifted every writerly and cinematic virtue they could from Twin Peaks, which was good at everything the new series isn’t, beginning with a detailed sense of place and organic mix of surreal and supernatural. Kingdom Hospital prefers the moment over the scenic, stock characters, and small plots, designed so that the viewer can slip in during any week and not feel estranged or out of depth. Still, there could be no payoff that’s worth sitting through this series’ plodding and painful confusion. One can only hope that this show is mercy-killed soon, that one of the animal spirits lounging in the ABC boardroom will nudge some network suit into pulling the plug.