Usually a fish-out-of-water set-up spells comedy, but that couldn’t be further from the truth for the new miniseries Coma, which airs tonight and tomorrow on A&E. Based on Robin Cook’s 1977 medical thriller of the same name (which was adapted into a 1978 film starring Geneviève Bujold and Michael Douglas), Coma sees med student Susan Wheeler (Lauren Ambrose) relocate from New York to the South. Despite the reputation that everyone’s friendlier down South, Wheeler notices an alarmingly high coma rate in her new hospital and begins to suspect her colleagues might be involved.
Ambrose, 34, remembers Cook’s skin-crawling novel “was kind of in everybody’s house” during her childhood, but she otherwise came to the story with a clean slate. Originally drawn to the script because Susan was “a badass and a very driven young woman,” the former Six Feet Under star admits Coma “was definitely a new role for me. Usually the women are supporting the man in figuring it out. In this case, it was the opposite. … To be able to do ‘woman on a mission’ was different and appealing.”
The setting and Susan’s verging-on-action-hero activity level aren’t all that are different from the originals. Ambrose says director Mikael Salomon (Band of Brothers, Drew Peterson: Untouchable) “wanted to make it scarier and get more into the technology.” She adds, “The look of it is very different. There were these wild, elaborate sets built,” including futuristic coma pods, skintight silver unitards, and a HAZMAT-style suit that Ambrose says crew had a particular fondness for. “It had many nicknames on the set: Marshmallow Suit, Bunny Suit,” she recalls. Black Swan screenwriter also brought an element of “not knowing what’s real and what’s not real” with his teleplay.
If all this sci-fi standbys don’t do the trick to give viewers the heebee jeebies, Ambrose thinks her Oscar-winning costar Ellen Burstyn as an up-to-no-good superior will do the trick. “She went so far [for the character]. She wears this scary leg brace, and her hair was teased out into this blond halo, and she had this scary Southern accent,” Ambrose laughs. “She just really scary and really great.” EW’s exclusive sneak peek from last month can certainly vouch for that statement.
Coma, also starring Richard Dreyfuss and Stephen Pasquale (Rescue Me), premieres tonight and tomorrow at 9 p.m. ET.