Welcome to Kingdom Hospital! Van injuries, down the hall and to the right.
Excuse me? Oh, you're here for a hernia? Tsk. Sorry to hear it -- were you trying to suspend too much disbelief again?
You say you were trying to lift a recent Stephen King hardcover? Ow! Good thing you didn't try to read it: the Trauma Ward is full.
Take a seat in the Waiting Room, please. Here: you can sit next to my good friend Nicole, who's also suffering from King-related injuries. Her account of her soul-scarring experience will not only take your mind off the pain, it'll also remind you just how much worse things could be...
There are certain words and phrases which cast a dark cloud over even the happiest of times, that make you shudder and cause you to question all that is good in the world. Like hearing your doctor say "You know that fish that swims up the human urethra?" Like seeing the words "Based on a novel/screenplay by Stephen King." Even his most ardent supporters couldn't in good conscience claim that Sleepwalkers or that god-awful remake of The Shining with the guy from "Wings" were any good. And everyone (myself included) who has ever enjoyed his work in the past, cringed as we watched in numb horror while the pilot episode of his new television series(!) Kingdom Hospital reached levels of heretofore-unknown BADNESS.
The series' premise is the secrets and mysteries lurking in a haunted hospital. There are a couple of effectively eerie scenes, but nothing you could call truly scary. I've been more terrified by leftovers I've found in the back of my refrigerator. I've seen episodes of "Ed, Edd and Eddy" with better crafted plots. I'm actually offended. I'm offended that some network exec gave this crap a green light, that it was assumed someone would find this enjoyable and worthwhile. Have we now reached a point where Stephen King can blow his nose on a screenplay and people will line up to buy it?
Let's begin by hitting a few of the highlights (lowlights?).
The mystical, talking Giant Anteater. I work in at a zoo and our giant anteaters are among my favorite animals, so please permit me a moment of pure, frustrated annoyance. The physiology is all wrong. The feet look as if they belong to a Gorilla! Anteaters do walk on their knuckles, but they don't have knuckles in the same way that primates do. This abomination also sports an enormous mouth which opens to reveal razor-sharp teeth. Thanks a lot, Stevie boy. For the next month, stupid tourists are going to be asking me if Anteaters really have all those teeth. Even worse? This thing has DIALOGUE! One of its lines? "Ant-solutely delicious!" You know, I used to think the worst line he ever wrote was that abysmal "Did you make lemonade in your pants?" from Silver Bullet (which is a great, too-often overlooked little Werewolf flick) but I think he's just topped himself.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I should probably begin at the beginning. We open up on a scene that seems to come straight out of a Dickens novel. Men, women and children are labouring in what looks to be a mine of some sort. Wearing ragged clothes and with dirt artfully smeared on their faces, these people all look pretty grateful that they don't have to say the word ant-solutely. The camera focuses on the children, including one small girl who is ringing a bell. There's a disastrous fire. We can assume that Kingdom Hospital was built on the site of that fire, in which countless labourers, most of whom were children, lost their lives. Patients claim to hear a little girl crying, especially when riding the elevator. This is dismissed by the staff, who are either oblivious or in denial.
Next we have a cosy domestic scene where artist Peter Rickman is making small talk with his wife. He's just putting the finishing touches on a painting of a rambling, New England style white house surrounded by a meadow. In the lower right corner, he's painted a giant anteater. (At first I was happy to see one of my favorite animals given a cameo appearance. Oh, how young and foolish I was back then, back when this show had barely begun to suck.) Peter then decides to go for a run.
The next scene was clearly inspired by King's own experience of being hit by the driver of a truck who was distracted by his dog, and that makes me a bit reluctant to criticize it.
Oh, what the hey. A young man comes bombing down the road, is distracted by Fido, and slams into our hero who was wearing headphones with the volume up so high that he couldn't hear a pickup driving less than five feet behind him. Way to go, Pete. He's flipped into the air and lands at the side of the road. We hear his thoughts as a voiceover. The terrified driver gets out and begins his own shaken monologue. He's already got a couple of warrants out for his arrest and he's just sure someone will come along. Having said this, and apologizing repeatedly to his unmoving victim, he jumps back into his truck and speeds away.
The voiceover continues as Peter realizes he's badly hurt and unable to move. The crow from a couple of paragraphs ago makes its appearance now. It threatens to eat his eyes but is subsequently chased off by the anthropomorphic anteater (Hey, alliteration!) who snags an ant that had crawled onto Peter's face. It then declares said ant to be ant-solutely delicious. It may have said more but I really couldn't hear much over the loud groaning sounds. By the time I stopped groaning, our protagonist was being loaded into an ambulance (What do you make of it, doc? Looks like a bad script to me!).
A doctor calls Mrs. Rickman at home to tell her there's been a serious accident. After some emoting, she hangs up and prepares to rush to his side. As she's getting ready to go out the door, she glances at the painting he'd been working on. (Ah, yes. The last idyllic moments before his accident. How bittersweet. How tragic. How the hell am I going to make it through another 90 minutes of this!?) She notices with not nearly enough surprise that the anteater in the painting now has its improbable snout raised high in the air, blood red lips curled up in a snarl that reveals several pointy, white teeth. Now, I've seen enough "Amityville" sequels to know that you've got to nip that sort of thing in the bud. If you don't, next thing you know you're spitting at priests and chasing close family members with various kitchen utensils. She doesn't stop to torch the painting (woe be unto her!) but instead rushes out the door.
It's time now to be introduced to a number of characters who will become regular players in this series, at least until somebody wises up and gives this monstrosity the axe. Or until King flakes out on that deal he made with the devil (don't tell me you can't smell the brimstone all over this stinker!). We meet the egotistical and thorougly obnoxious Dr. Stegman. He is head of neurology and for some reason he's laughed at by a bunch of homeless people. Yeah. Because people with no place to live always spend their time standing around mocking random passersby. In something out of everyone's adolescent nightmares, they just keep pointing and laughing at him as he does such hilarious things as putting the club on his car, opening a door, covering a parking meter. Boy howdy, that's some funny stuff right there. I can hardly contain my mirth. (Oh, wait. That's not mirth rising up within me, it's bile. My mistake.)
Two characters with Down Syndrome giggle constantly and naturally operate on a higher plane than the rest of us. "He's back from the Old Kingdom! Heeheeheehee!" One of them gleefully announces when our dull protagonist comes out of his coma. (Lucky bastard. How come I didn't get to spend an hour and a half of the show's running time unconscious?) It would've been nice to see people with Downs appearing as regular characters, like everyone else. They're not a condition, they're people who have a medical condition. Every time they're on screen in this mess, we're treated to and endless scene of them giggling like a live action version of Beavis and Butthead. Even worse is the insinuation that they know what's going on at the haunted hospital simply by virtue of having a developmental disability. Oh, my aching head.
I recently caught "Kingdom II" on television, with subtitles. King adapted this story from a Danish author's novel called, I believe "The Kingdom"[?]. But I think Will can probably shed more light on that than I can [NOTE: "Kingdom" was also a pair of TV miniseries-es-es, or however you pluralise that... both installments were directed by Lars von Trier, which explains why I've been avoiding them. -- wtl]. I did manage to watch enough to realize the two characters with Downs weren't King's original invention. He is, however, still completely responsible for that damn anteater.
The hospital's security guard wears coke-bottle eyeglasses and talks to himself. I guess this is meant to be quirky and endearing, God help us all. He's got a dog, which earns him a few points. I like dogs. Every time the camera's on this guy he's googling into it with his nose inches away from the lens. I'd call him the comic relief but there hasn't been any real drama or tension that calls for relief.
Next we have Sally Druse, a patient whose son works at the hospital. She's admitted with complaints of tingling in her extremities. It's hinted that she's a hypochondriac. She also happens to be psychic and talks about holding a seance to communicate with whatever's haunting the hospital. Sally has a friend, an elderly gentleman, who is also in the hospital and seems barely aware of his surroundings. He does perk up at the mention of a seance, although I can't tell if it's because he thinks that's a great idea or if he's seen all the "Amityville" sequels too and only wishes he could get out while the gettin's good. Sally is a woman in a Stephen King story, thus I fear for her safety. A disturbingly common thread in much of King's work is the depiction of child abuse and violence against women. Both are arguably appropriate topics to explore in the horror genre, but only if they serve a purpose and move the plot forward. Within his novels, they rarely do so, instead grinding the story to a halt. It makes me wonder why he feels the need to include them. But that's not a road I care to walk down and anyway, I digress.
Andrew McCarthy, who is really too good for this, provides the one bright spark of decent acting and characterization as brilliant neurosurgeon Dr. Hook. (You think that name's groan-worthy? Try an administrator named Jesse James and another employee named Johnny B. Goode.) I think these creative touches are meant to distract us from how little actual thought went into these characters. King is capable of good writing and of creating complex characters. I genuinely enjoyed the novels "Christine", "The Stand" and "It", but the vast majority of his creations seem to be wooden stereotypes, the words he stuffs in their mouths awkward at best and laughable at worst. As a writer, (albeit not one as rich as he is) I can't imagine having such contempt for my characters. I feel an almost maternal sense of protectiveness towards the worlds I create and the characters I people them with, and could never write lines that didn't ring true to who they are.
Yet another problem is that the human antagonists have no apparent reason for their actions. Real people don't think to themselves "Geez, I'm a total jerk and man, I LOVE it!" - real people do act in cruel, unkind ways. They behave selfishly and lash out at anyone who suggests the sun doesn't rise and set on them. The difference is that real people justify their actions, if only to themselves. They have a motivation, which others may or may not understand, that drives them. Dr. Stegman acts like an ass for no good reason except that IITS. (It's In The Script - copyright Ken Begg)
After another commercial break (it was a good, maybe even a great commercial. No mystical anteaters or lackluster ghosts. If only it could have lasted longer. Oh little commercial, we hardly knew ye.) the neurology staff are ready for a meeting, but Dr. Stegman's not there (he's out being mocked by the homeless). Dr. Hook proceeds to start the meeting without him. The rest of the spineless staff are shocked but go along with it. By the time Dr. Stegman arrives, the meeting is over. Steggy becomes irate that they held it without him and throws a temper tantrum that would embarrass a two year old. He berates Dr. Hook and shouts that the meetings begin when he arrives and end when he leaves. Yeah, Stegman. The whole world revolves around you. What a jackass. Dr. Hook's colleagues stand by and watch as Stegman spews his venom. Nobody suggests that Dr. Hook was in the right, nobody mentions how incredibly rude and unprofessional Stegman's behavior is. I've seen more backbone in an Invertebrate Convention.
So where exactly is the HAUNTING in this haunted hospital tale? Would it be too much to give me an apparition or two? C'mon. A little ectoplasm? I'm not asking for much. Just stop making me feel like I'm watching a really bad episode of ER. Peter suddenly comes out of his coma, which he apparently spent wandering eerie, empty hallways. Just before he wakes, we get a quick peek of an actual ghost. Gee, and only an hour and forty-five minutes into a two hour show. Unfortunately, the "ghost" looks like some goth kid wearing a pair of cheap fangs he picked up in the seasonal aisle at Wal*Mart two Halloweens ago. Peter's overly dramatic wife is overjoyed that he's okay, and his doctor declares it a miracle.
Sadly, this is not the end of the show. There's still more! Oh, where is that eyeball-eating crow when I really need him? Sally Druse is on an elevator that suddenly stops. All the lights go down. (Oooh. Spooky!) She announces boldly "I'm not afraid of you!" We get another look at a long, dark corrdior. Quick flash of the spooky, fanged kid.
While everyone else is celebrating Peter's return to the land of the living, the mystical anteater puts in another appearance, saying something along the lines of "I did you a favor, now you'll do one for me." Wait. What the hell? The anteater brought him out of his coma? What is it, his spirit animal? Like when Homer Simpson ate that Death Pepper and the Coyote led him on a dreamquest? And what, you may be wondering, does the anteater want in return for his good deed? Some ants, perhaps? Nope. He wants Peter to tell everyone about little Mary and her bell. Her bell that signals death. It then repeats that "ant-solutely delicious" line. Yeah. Because that just keeps getting funnier.