Inflexible HMOs are the least of the worries among patients and staff of “Kingdom Hospital,” an eerie new medical drama from Stephen King premiering Wednesday on ABC.
Adapted from director Lars von Trier’s critically acclaimed Danish miniseries “The Kingdom,” the U.S. series is set in a haunted New England hospital built on the site of a devastating 1869 mill fire that claimed the lives of scores of children.
Some of their restless spirits -- and other, more malevolent entities, perhaps -- roam the hospital corridors, generally unnoticed by the harried staff, which includes Dr. Hook (Andrew McCarthy), a gifted but distinctly pragmatic surgeon; eccentric hospital administrator Dr. Jesse James (Ed Begley Jr.); and Dr. “Steg” Stegman (Bruce Davison), the arrogant chief of staff.
“Kingdom Hospital” marks the TV series debut of McCarthy, who says he is savoring his role as a character who is so complex that even his first name is something of a mystery.
“I wouldn’t say Hook is really a nice guy, but he’s definitely an interesting one,” the 41-year-old actor says. “The great thing about Stephen King is that he is such a wonderful writer of character and dialogue.... Nothing that we do [as characters] is ever solely in service of the plot: Everyone is very true to what they would do” in a given situation.
“Hook isn’t just a good guy, which I don’t think would be terribly interesting. Hook is ambivalent, ambivalent about everything, and I can certainly understand that. He’s altruistic, but that’s actually self-defense, and he wants you to like him. But he’s basically a loner who wants to be left alone. He’s got all these different sides to him, which just makes him a lot of fun to play.”
Davison, who plays McCarthy’s principal antagonist on the staff, likewise gives King kudos for his strikingly drawn characters.
“Stephen writes such wonderful, character-driven things that it gives us actors a lot of meat and potatoes to throw at one another,” Davison says.
“My character seems to represent everything that’s wrong with this country right now. He’s all arrogance and control, a compulsion to say, ‘I can fix this,’ and he can’t.
“The more he thinks he is gaining more control, the more things unravel for him. Hospitals offer a seat of power where people who like to play God can get carried away. My character certainly has his good points, and his vulnerable points, but for the most part I represent a point of view that can be pretty abhorrent.”
The genesis of “Kingdom Hospital” dates to 1996, when King and executive producer Mark Carliner were collaborating on the ABC miniseries adaptation of the author’s “The Shining.” King found a copy of Von Trier’s miniseries in a Boulder, Colo., video store, Carliner says, and was immediately excited by the piece’s combination of horror and humor.
Plans to collaborate on a U.S. adaptation were put on hold when Carliner was unable to secure the rights to “The Kingdom,” and the project was still in limbo when King was struck and nearly killed by a van driver in 1999. King subsequently spent several months in and out of hospitals during his painful recovery.
“ ‘Kingdom Hospital’ really came alive in Stephen’s mind at that point,” Carliner explains. “He was so moved and driven by what he had experienced in the hospital, and [when] he came out, he sat down and wrote 15 hours.”
“Kingdom Hospital,” in fact, opens as popular artist Peter Rickman (Jack Coleman), King’s surrogate, is admitted to the facility after being struck by a van driver, just as the novelist was. Many of the events in the unfolding story are viewed from this character’s perspective.
McCarthy says he doesn’t think of “Kingdom Hospital” as fundamentally a horror series. “Parts of it are scary, sure, but a lot of it is just very, very funny.”
“We have had a few creepy things happen, though. In our show, I list the injuries that Jack’s [Coleman] character has to his wife, all the broken bones. And two weeks after we started work on the show, the director’s son was in an accident.
“He had the exact same 15 broken bones and perforated things and fractured skull that Jack’s character had.”
John Crook writes for Tribune Media Services.
“Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital” premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday on ABC. The network has rated it TV-14LV (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence).
Cover photograph by Frank Ockenfels.