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CBS All Access' The Stand is yet another disappointing Stephen King TV series -- a disappointing and dour slog

  • "Stephen King TV adaptations have a few hits and a lot of misses," says Allison Keene. "The movie side is also a mixed bag, but somehow TV really gets the worst of it. So it is always with some trepidation that one begins a King series—a trepidation that CBS All Access’ The Stand does little to assuage. Busy, messy, and confusing, the 9-episode limited series doesn’t know where to put its focus. Though it does improve slightly as it goes (as its world becomes clearer and its laundry list of characters somewhat more distinguishable), its premiere episode and much of what follows—especially for those who are not familiar with the source material—is bafflingly executed. It doesn’t help, either, that the story’s instigating event is a flu-like pandemic that wipes out 80% of the world’s population. There are obviously a myriad of interesting ways to broach that, but like almost every aspect of The Stand, it’s confoundingly dour instead. (The series is also violent, gross, and full of performative cursing and sexual content to remind you this is CBS All Access, baby)."


    • This new Stand is troubling from the start — or, rather, from where it starts: "Because for some baffling reason, this new version opts to begin in the middle," says Alan Sepinwall, adding: "Movies and TV shows have been using out-of-sequence storytelling forever, often as a way to hook the audience on a plot that otherwise takes a while to get going. You know the type: [record scratch] You’re probably wondering how I wound up juggling chainsaws at Prince Harry’s bachelor party. Well, it’s a long but eventually thrilling story… The in media res opening is rarely a convincing disguise, though the motivations behind it are understandable. But The Stand director Josh Boone and showrunner Benjamin Cavell, who wrote the premiere together, have inexplicably done the opposite, downplaying an exciting beginning to instead land in the more workmanlike middle."
    • So much is lost in The Stand choosing to start in the middle: "King goes into characters’ relationships with the people in their lives with such tenderness and such depth and those have nearly all been entirely eschewed in favor of … nothing, really," says Vivian Kane. "Particularly absent are their paternal or paternal figure bonds—how young 20-something Frannie confides in her father that she’s pregnant right before he dies, or how Nick Andros, the Deaf and mute nomad finally feels loved and respected upon meeting a small-town sheriff. We spend half the book investing in these characters because of these kinds of experiences. I know that much of this review has been about the novel but again, if the series managed to find a different way to allow us to connect with these characters and their plight to the same degree, shaking up the chronology wouldn’t be an issue. It could be exciting. But it doesn’t and so it isn’t."
    • The Stand feels like authentic Stephen King: "Thanks to a collection of assured directors, the series’ visual language marries grand vistas of modernity laid to waste with intimate compositions whose framing and mirror imagery help subtly express the conditions of its major and minor players, some of whom are played by well-known actors in brief appearances," says Nick Schager. "Treachery, faith, courage, and the tug-of-war between mankind’s impulses toward compassionate societal collectives and licentious, anarchic authoritarianism are all facets of this sprawling doomsday legend, and Boone and Cavell allow their themes to emerge naturally from the predicaments of their myriad characters. Better still, they share with King an interest in the underlying causes that lead to catastrophic effects, especially in the case of Harold, who in another life might have found himself carrying an AR-15 into his high school—and who therefore becomes the perfectly exploitable weapon for a fire-and-brimstone monster like Flagg."
    • The Stand is a plague unto itself: "Billed as a limited series but with all the pacing problems and world-building holes of a warm-up season, this King-ly bookend to the year in television is both the wrong kind of timely and another miscalculated rejiggering of the author’s longest novel," says Ben Travers. "It is also miscast, in nearly every role. The Stand isn’t bolstered by a fleet of skilled actors so much as it’s hindered by watching those proven talents struggle to find a credible tone within the series’ cleaned-up TV sheen and dirty allegory for good vs. evil. Showrunner Benjamin Cavell, alongside pilot director and executive producer Josh Boone as well as Stephen King’s son, Owen King, serving as producer, stick to the book’s story — save for a few choices likely considered too dark for mainstream audiences — but can’t expand on characters beyond what now feel like outdated archetypes, which is often a struggle in adapting lengthy novels."
    • The Stand is admirably bold and inspired, despite its messiness: "The Stand is filled with bold, surprising choices, from its non-linear structure to its reinterpretations of iconic set pieces to the ways it reimagines a few key characters," says Randall Colburn. "Some are inspired: Nat Wolff’s brazen take on henchman Lloyd Henreid—Riff Raff by way of Stevie Janowski—is an unexpected delight. Others disappoint: The potentially exciting inclusion of the easily excisable Rita Blakemoor (Heather Graham) proves that Garris was probably right in writing her out. For every missed swing there’s a hit, whether it’s a vivid and cinematic set piece, a shocking moment of tenderness, or even a clever needle drop (hello, Blue Öyster Cult)."
    • The Stand has way too many cast members: "The Stand’s cast is huge, like 1,200 pages huge, and not everybody’s piece of the screenplay pie is roomy enough to allow for a layered performance," says Cheryl Eddy. "Sometimes this is fine; James Marsden is predictably solid as reluctant hero Stu Redman, while Skarsgård glowers handsomely and levitates menacingly in his Vegas penthouse. Sometimes, the character fails to make much of a lasting impression, no matter how key they may be to the proceedings (sorry, Amber Heard as Nadine Cross, Odessa Young as Frannie Goldsmith, and especially Henry Zaga as Nick Andros). There are a few exceptions to this—Greg Kinnear is a welcome presence as eccentric professor Glen Bateman, and Brad William Henke won’t anger the many fans of King’s gentle M-O-O-N man, Tom Cullen. And, well, there are also a few performers who were apparently encouraged to do whatever they wanted, no matter how flamboyant. Let’s just say you’ll only think Nat Wolff is laying it on too thick as Flagg’s ditzy henchman Lloyd Henreid until Ezra Miller shows up to debut his very specific interpretation of the legendary Trashcan Man."
    • The Stand is a big, sprawling piece of work, and the way this version is structured makes it unwieldy: "While there are some genuinely effective attempts to generate suspense, those sequences stand beside some of the wildest and most off-the-mark sections of the series, which take place in Las Vegas, dubbed 'New Vegas,'" says Jen Chaney. "That’s where Randall presides over a modern-day Gomorrah in which survivors, dressed in cyberpunk couture, engage in constant orgies and violence. This type of gritty, noir-ish urban hellscape has been depicted in so many other movies and shows — Blade Runner, Total Recall, Netflix’s Altered Carbon — that it lands as laughably cliché instead of achieving the almost campy shock value for which it appears to be aiming. Even with more than twice as many episodes as the early-’90s miniseries, this The Stand still leaves some significant gaps in its storytelling and some unanswered questions, at least after six episodes. How are so many people immune to the virus, and aren’t they (or the writers of The Stand) curious to understand why? As presented in the CBS All Access telling, it’s fair to assume that all vestiges of local and federal government have been eradicated, but why isn’t there more of an effort to reach out for confirmation of that?"
    • The Stand would've benefitted from diverging from King's novel: "The Stand functions as a reminder that sometimes the greatest blessing the creators of a novel's TV adaptation can bestow upon fans is to diverge from the source material in a way that makes it spellbinding to watch, maintaining enough of its elements to capture the essence of the story's greatness," says Melanie McFarland. The Lord of the Rings not only survived Peter Jackson's interpretation, it thrived off of the films' popularity. King famously had issues with the artistic license Stanley Kubrick took in his interpretation of The Shining, but that took nothing away from either the novel or the film's iconic stature. Someday someone will have the creative bravery and skill to pare down The Stand into a solidly watchable made-for-TV effort. Hopefully we won't be 108 by the time that happens."
    • The Stand is the latest in a string of disappointing Stephen King TV adaptations: "Only a die-hard fan could get enthralled about (King's new ending for the CBS All Access series) ; the rest of us are perhaps still smarting from other heavily hyped but ultimately convoluted King properties that, as TV shows, were more tedious than chilling," says Hank Stuever. “Under the Dome, anyone? How about The Mist, Castle Rock, or The Outsider? First episodes, sure. But after a while? You can keep it. (One bright spot: Hulu’s 2016 adaptation of 11/22/63.) King spent years telling the world how badly Stanley Kubrick interpreted The Shining with his 1980 film, but that always seemed like sour grapes. All Kubrick did was make The Shining 10 times scarier and 75 percent less bathetic than the book. As such, it’s one of the few King adaptations worth watching again and again."
    • The Stand never quite reaches the epic scope illustrated so clearly in the 1978 novel: "Instead, showrunner Benjamin Cavell have applied a strangely sanitized sheen to the central threat of elemental evil, resulting in a miniseries that feels simultaneously over-detailed and underdeveloped," says Roxana Hadadi. "That conflicted quality makes the danger faced by the community serving as humanity’s last stand curiously subdued, and The Stand struggles to distinguish itself outside of its exceptional casting choices."
    • Stephen King's original concept for The Stand predates the novel's release, back to his 1969 story Night Surf featuring flulike virus nicknamed Captain Trips in honor of the Grateful Dead
    • Showrunner Benjamin Cavell says The Stand felt relevant in the years before the current pandemic: “Even three years ago, it felt like that was a moment when The Stand was eerily resonant already,” Cavell says. “We were all coming to question so many things that I had grown up taking for granted — the structure of human society, of human civilization, of American democracy. Those are the questions at the heart of The Stand. What would you do if you were given the chance to push the reset button on humanity? How would you rebuild? That was what drew me to it.”
    • Cavell defends telling The Stand out of order: "I feel like an audience is savvy enough at this point (to follow along)," he tells EW. "I doubt people would have thought that James Marsden was going to die due to Captain Tripps and not be with us for the whole series. It's a completely valid question, I just don't know if that's the juice of the early part of the series. It's not so much about whether the characters are going to die, but rather: What is the horror that's going to befall them? And how are they going figure out how to push back against that evil?" Cavell added that he also didn't want to spend the first few episodes focused on the pandemic -- that was the original plan, not due to coronavirus.

    TOPICS: The Stand (2020), CBS All Access, Benjamin Cavell, Josh Boone, Stephen King