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Hamstrung By Odd Choices, The Stand Falls Flat

The new ten-part CBS All Access miniseries chops up Stephen King's plague opus to strange effect.
  • Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg) and the Dark Man (Alexander Skarsgard) in The Stand (CBS All Access)
    Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg) and the Dark Man (Alexander Skarsgard) in The Stand (CBS All Access)

    Fans of Stephen King's most epic novel have been awaiting this week's premiere of The Stand for a long time. King first published his novel in 1978, and expanded it with an updated edition in 1990 that pushed the page count to more than a thousand pages. The book tells the story of a worldwide plague that wipes out all but one percent of the global population. Those who survive find themselves called to one of two camps: the good and welcoming Mother Abagail in Boulder, Colorado, and the sinister Randall Flagg in Las Vegas. Long regarded by many as the best of King's signature tales, The Stand's scope and length have made it a significant challenge for adaptation. A 1994 ABC miniseries, directed by Mick Garris, attempted to tell the story in four two-hour installments, but despite the involvement of stars like Gary Sinise, Ruby Dee, and Rob Lowe, it was hampered by a TV-movie budget and network constraints.

    Several attempts were made over the years to adapt The Stand into a feature film, the most notable of which involved Ben Affleck and David Yates, but it was The Fault in Our Stars director Josh Boone who finally grabbed hold of the reins and delivered this ten-part limited series to CBS All Access.

    Although this project was in the works long before COVID-19 darkened our doorstep, you would still expect the story to resonate heavily with current events. A worldwide pandemic that grinds society to a halt in a cloud of confusion and disinformation sure does seem timely. (Not to mention a story about a malevolent messianic figure who draws intractable loyalists to his side.) And yet Boone's version of The Stand arrives in such an odd format, having made so many puzzling and ultimately counterproductive choices, that it's hard to imagine viewers will remain invested long enough to appreciate whatever resonance there may be.

    For reasons defying understanding, Boone's The Stand opens in the middle of King's book. Not on a pivotal event or with the kind of shocking moment that must then be backtracked from. Just in the middle, with the remnants of post-plague society already assembled in Boulder, clearing out bodies from the homes in which they died. The plague came, it saw, it conquered, and the survivors have gotten on their feet to enough of a degree to re-establish the sanitation department, and here we are. From there, yes, the story hops back in time to the early days of the plague, then forward again to its tipping point, then laterally to a different character, then back again to the very beginning. Disorienting is the kindest way to describe this structural gambit. Incomprehensible is another. Given that some portion of the audience will be King fans who have read the book, I suppose you could make the argument that they'll know what's going on, but as one of those people, I can report that knowing the whole story only makes this sliced-and-diced narrative all the more frustrating.

    The premiere episode opens on Harold Lauder (Owen Teague), a second-tier character in the book, although one whose importance is definitely felt. A bullied teen who writes science-fiction stories in isolation and pines for the girl down the block, Harold is your prototypical incel, and in this instance, the show actually seems attuned to how this kind of persona has reverberated in American culture (sadly this isn't the case for all of the show's social themes). He's hung up on Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young) who is a few years older and secretly pregnant. When society collapses around them, they end up the only souls left in their small Maine town, much to Frannie's chagrin, and they set out to find other survivors. Meanwhile, the pilot also pivots to Stu Redman (James Marsden), who we first see having already been rounded up by government scientists who are scrambling to control the plague (a superflu known colloquially as "Captain Trips," a classic Stephen King folksy-ism). And we see both Fran and Stu have visions of an old woman in a cornfield: Abagail Freemantle, very possibly the oldest woman in the world, played by Whoopi Goldberg with raspy wisdom and not much else, which is mostly the fault of a narrative that doesn't give any of the characters much time to develop.

    It's probably not worth getting too precious about Stephen King's source material. Even as someone who adored the book, I can how see it's an odd fit with 2020 sensibilities. Even among King's bibliography, filled with tales of good versus evil, The Stand is remarkably binary in its characterizations. The good follow Mother Abagail to Boulder; the evil are drawn by Flagg, the Dark Man, to Las Vegas. Casting Las Vegas, the city of sin, full of strippers and gamblers and fornicators, as the epicenter of human evil is at best hokey, at worst problematic.

    The Stand is also a far more overtly Christian story than you might remember. The whole thing feels like something that would be more at home on the Paramount network (which it sort of will be soon enough). That isn't so much a value judgement as a values judgement. From a 21st century perspective, King's novel is a lot more conservative — or at least libertarian — than you'd expect, and aside from a few cosmetic adjustments, Boone doesn't stray too far from that vantage point. The survivors of humanity are called to Boulder to rebuild a society, yes, but ultimately that's all cast aside, and it's the rugged individuals who are sent into the desert on their God quest. Add to that an odd anti-science streak voiced in one particular scene by none other than Greg "Heaven Is for Real" Kinnear and this will probably be a story that doesn't sit well with a lot of people.

    Those aforementioned cosmetic changes are welcome, though. Struggling musician Larry Underwood is a Black man in this version, played by Watchmen Emmy-nominee Jovan Adepo. Ralph Brentner, the novel's Okie farmer, is now Ray Brentner, played by actress Irene Bedard, who is of Inuit and Cree ancestry. Brazilian actor Henry Zaga plays Nick Andros, a role that Rob Lowe played in 1994.

    Morally rigid as it was, King's story excelled at narrative momentum, spinning a sprawling yarn about dozens of survivors across the country. The ravages of Captain Trips were felt in every home and apartment building; the collapse of society at every intersection and in radio broadcast. The survivors found each other one by one, guided and bonded by their dreams of Mother Abagail and fears of the Dark Man (played by Alexander Skarsgard with a kind of vaguely sinister edge). When the groups begin to make it to Boulder at the novel's midpoint, it's a relief. A hard-won release after weeks of horror. Kicking the TV series off with Boulder having already been attained lets the air out of everything, robbing the viewer of the opportunity to bond with these characters during their bleakest moments.

    The ten-episode limited series has become a genre unto itself over the last decade, having produced as many compelling series as it has frustrating ones. One can understand and even admire Boone's refusal to simply turn The Stand into that proverbial "ten-hour movie." A more episodic adaptation could have really worked here. We've seen plenty of shows build big ensemble narratives by giving each episode over to one focal character: Lost did this to great effect, inspiring the likes of Orange Is the New Black and 13 Reasons Why. That doesn't happen here.

    Ultimately, its hamstrung approach to the narrative ends up frustrating any ability for The Stand  to resonate as a plague narrative for the COVID era. This was always going to be a daunting task for a novel that was published more than four decades ago, but while a few of the early scenes dwell on the elemental horror of watching society succumb to a disease, the rest of the series feels maddeningly scattered to the winds.

    The Stand premieres on CBS All Access Thursday December 17th, with new episodes dropping Thursdays through February.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Stand (2020), CBS All Access, Alexander Skarsgard, Greg Kinnear, Henry Zaga, Irene Bedard, James Marsden, Jovan Adepo, Odessa Young, Owen Teague, Stephen King, Whoopi Goldberg