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On the page, Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) is a study in horrifying momentum. It’s so propulsive that King was able to add hundreds of pages 12 years after its original publication without sacrificing the celerity of a narrative that keeps moving from one climax — a burgeoning plague, humanity mobilizing in Boulder, the final stand — to another. It’s generally clear, and it’s always churning along.
CBS All Access’ new adaptation of The Stand is a car on cinderblocks. It looks great. If you glance under the hood, you can see all of the work that’s been done on the engine. But no matter how ready it seems to peel out onto the road, it isn’t going anywhere. Very rarely is the Benjamin Cavell-steered adaptation, with Josh Boone directing the pilot, actively bad, but it’s very frustrating.
AIR DATE Dec 17, 2020
This adaptation begins in medias res in Boulder, Colorado, with a team of volunteers clearing bodies out of a church — bodies crawling with maggots and grotesquely bloated in the face and neck. From that point, we flash back to an introduction to our main characters and then the spreading military-spawned virus known as Captain Trips. It’s a respiratory ailment that you know is about to decimate the population because every time there’s a group scene in the flashbacks, somebody edited in a handful of dry coughs just for ambiance.
In Maine, we meet quintessential girl-next-door Frannie (Odessa Young) and vaguely repellent narcissist Harold Lauder (Owen Teague), who has an unrequited crush on her (she is his former babysitter).
Initially in Texas, we meet Stu Redman (James Marsden), survivor of a shocking accident pivotal to the proliferation of Captain Trips. He eventually crosses paths with former sociology professor Glen (Greg Kinnear).
On the cusp of musical stardom in New York City, singer Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo) begins a cross-country migration, one that will eventually bring him together with Nadine (Amber Heard) and the mysterious child they call Joe (Gordon Cormier).
At a hillbilly bar somewhere, we meet deaf-mute Nick (Henry Zaga), who crosses paths with Tom Cullen (Brad William Henke), who is developmentally disabled.
All of these figures, plus dozens and dozens more, have been having dreams of joining the ageless Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg), a mystical force for good.
But if there’s a mystical force for good in a Stephen King universe, there’s inevitably going to be a balancing force of darkness, in this case Alexander Skarsgard’s Randall Flagg. Flagg has been sending out his own dreams, getting responses from the unhinged likes of notorious spree killer Lloyd (Nat Wolff) and the fire-loving force of id known only as Trashcan Man (Ezra Miller).
It should be noted that it takes six of nine hour-long episodes to get to all of these characters and that they represent only the start of the vast ensemble, perhaps the biggest reason why this has proven such a complicated book to bring to the screen. Its prior adaptation, a 1994 ABC miniseries written by King and directed by Mick Garris, has memorable moments, but it’s miscast throughout and loses almost all character depth in adhering to the shape of the book.
Cavell resists the shape of King’s book. I can understand the principle in not wanting to wallow in Captain Trips or the idea of The Stand as a pandemic story. Instead of a fairly linear story told in layered parallel journeys, the Boulder section — the reconstituting of society after the plague but ahead of a confrontation between good and evil — is now the center of The Stand. Each episode, in a fashion that can only be compared to Lost, gives a couple of characters showcase backstory treatment. The result is a series of episodes that have the main Boulder narrative intercut with flashbacks in as many as four or five timelines, plus various characters’ dreams.
Scene-for-scene, there are beats that are a little disturbing or a little scary, but glued together with insufficient artistry or consideration, there’s no way for anything to build. There’s a draining of the story’s inexorable gravity and tension, especially when you know which characters are already in Boulder and therefore which instantly recognizable character actors are there as flu fodder.
It’s inevitable that character introductions will be rushed in this format — the correct way to adapt The Stand was almost certainly as a three-season, 30-episode series — but the introduction of new confusion is a problem. Nobody who hasn’t read the book is going to be able to make an iota of sense out of Frannie’s pregnancy, out of Larry’s odd interlude with a woman named Rita (Heather Graham) or the logic in somebody volunteering Tom for a key mission after the character has been introduced in literally only one prior scene.
Cavell has at least rendered King’s overwhelmingly white ensemble much more inclusive, whether it’s making Larry Underwood — a character chided in the book for sounding Black on the radio — actually Black, or transforming Ralph Brentner from a good ol’ boy farmer into an intense Native American woman. Tom’s developmental disability is, at times, a little fuzzy, but it’s several steps more enlightened than what plays out in the book (so, as Tom might say, “M-O-O-N, that spells a huge relief.”). Nick is now a refugee from Central America, a change that could have been fruitful, except that without the internal monologue on the page, Nick is barely even a glum cipher — and if that character isn’t one of the hearts of the show, the show has no particular heart.
Marsden has a square-jawed Gary Cooper-swagger and he seems to be enjoying playing a character who is actually fundamentally decent. Young has a perfect mixture of pluck and vulnerability as Frannie. Adepo, continuing the slow progress until Hollywood can no longer deny that he’s a burgeoning star, has enough charisma to make you believe Larry as a potential rock god, though the show has no real idea who Larry is as a character. And if you want somebody to pontificate in a genially forgettable way, it’s pretty much the part Kinnear was born to play. I didn’t buy Goldberg as Mother Abigail for a second, though that’s a product of Mother Abigail being a ridiculous character (and of Ruby Dee being the only perfectly cast part of the previous miniseries).
The Las Vegas side of the story, which fully kicks in around the fourth and fifth episodes, is a wild, neon-lined Hieronymus Bosch painting of human excess, and it’s immediately distracting in contrast to the mundane civics lesson in Boulder. Skarsgard is much more interesting as a figure of looming menace — with most of his early scenes shot in a paper mâché-heavy studio set made to resemble boulders outside of Vegas — than when he becomes increasingly central to the story, especially in the sixth episode when he basically just becomes Vampire Eric from True Blood.
We get to spend several episodes watching Wolff hamming it up and you think he’s as over-the-top as this universe can sustain. But then Miller shows up in the sixth episode, the last sent to critics, and he’s channeling Quasimodo by way of the Jurassic Park raptors by way of Renfield from Dracula and the only reasonable reaction is, “Man, they were so grateful to have Ezra Miller that nobody wanted to tell him to turn it down a notch.”
Occupying the moral middle ground, Teague and Heard are decently conflicted even if they aren’t playing the Harold or Nadine from the book.
And how about the flu and how it plays in our COVID-19-infused reality? The answer is that it rarely feels overly connected to anything in the real world and I’ll leave it for you to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. With the exception of one visceral early scene in a New York City emergency room, the pandemic here has more in common with whatever happened to civilization on The Walking Dead than anything experienced in real life in the past 10 months. As it was written and filmed before the pandemic, one can easily understand why Cavell and company didn’t want to steer into our all-too-unpleasant year. Yet it’s hard not to feel that in a story designed as a broad allegory, the opportunity for some sort of grounded resonance has been lost and replaced by almost nothing.
One might try desperately to tie Randall Flagg to Donald Trump, his desert denizens to the “deplorables” and the whole show into a reflection on American ideological fragmentation in 2020. That’d be me making stuff up. The show has little to say about how we’re living today. I’ll watch the last three episodes, especially to see the new coda written by King himself, but too much of this new attempt to tackle The Stand is full of coughing and mucous, signifying nothing.
Cast: James Marsden, Odessa Young, Jovan Adepo, Amber Heard, Owen Teague, Henry Saga, Brad William Henke, Irene Bedard, Nat Wolff, Ezra Miller and Greg Kinnear
Adapted by: Benjamin Cavell from the book by Stephen King.
New episodes premiere Thursdays on CBS All Access, starting Dec. 17.
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