Touch Me, I'm Sick

And you thought HMOs were spooky: 'Kingdom Hospital'

There's a lot to be said for the virtue of casual weirdness on television. It lifts a show up from the pallid vision of "normal" that you'll find on a dozen bland sitcoms like According to Jim. This isn't the deliberate disorientation and antagonizing of HBO's Carnivale. The casually weird show--Scrubs being a good example--vividly demonstrates how our imaginations can elevate the picayune conflicts and irritations of everyday life into something more epic. Witness, for example, the episode where the tension between surgeons and emergency-room doctors took on the musical form of a medical West Side Story.

Not that there's anything wrong with the deliberately weird. It's just harder for TV to do without alienating the viewer. Bad weird shows try hard to impress upon you that they're in control of a skewed little world, and you, poor ovine viewer, are along for the ride. They're like the high school classmate who tried to convince everyone of how edgy she was by going as Lizzie Borden for Halloween and referring to her Chevette by the name "Cthulhu." You wanted to tell her to stop trying so hard, because she's stomping all over whatever organic oddball qualities she's got.

In a similar fashion, Kingdom Hospital tumbles over its own trippy conceits, obscuring its novel charm in a profusion of gimmickry. Though you'd think the statute of limitations would have expired, Twin Peaks still deserves blame for having been both a groundbreaking series and a rotten influence. It was this program that alerted otherwise unimaginative network execs to an apparently untapped demand for the weird, and trained viewers to accept that sometimes, nothing makes se--ooh! Look! Pie! That must mean something! And wait! Is that a song! Do the lyrics have a hidden significance?

Reread those last few sentences a few times if you would. There. You've just had the experience of watching Kingdom Hospital. The limited-run series, produced by Stephen King and based on a Lars von Trier Danish TV original, is ostensibly about the goings-on at a Maine hospital. The building, we learn, was built on the site of a horrific fire where countless mentally disturbed child laborers perished. As a result, the doctors and patients now grapple with forces of evil, which have apparently decided to summer in Maine rather than show up for the day job around the Axis.

Each murkily composed scene is chockablock with close-ups of items that have no direct bearing to the goings-on. Yet we study them intently, convinced that if the director finds them important, they must be. What is that in the doctor's hand, you ask yourself, and why is this shot so sloppily? The brown-on-gray palate, borrowed from von Trier's original, doesn't help matters, either. The total effect makes you feel like someone bought the "This is horrifying!" package of special effects--now with little dead children in gray pancake makeup, sickly yellow spotlights on the characters' faces, and plenty of fisheye lens shots.

Kingdom Falls seems to have taken public speaking lessons from Twin Peaks. The dialogue is alternately minimal, nonsequitorial, or pregnant with presumed (not actual) meaning. Offbeat characters glide serenely through scenes, and the message to viewers is clear: They're weird! They're comfortable here! If all those reruns of Three's Company hadn't made your head so soft, and you had a greater tolerance for the smell of sulfur, you'd want to live here, too.

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