Warning: This review contains mild spoilers of both the miniseries and the novel!
The Stand is an adaptation of Stephen King’s epic pandemic novel. A deadly, government made respiratory virus (sometimes referred to as the “superflu” and sometimes as “Captain Trips” – a reference to Jerry Garcia and LSD) is accidentally released, killing 90 percent of the human population (along with the majority of dogs, horses, and cows as well). The remaining humans are lured to two locations: those choosing the side of Good go to Boulder, Colorado to meet Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg), and those choosing Evil go to Las Vegas (or “New Vegas”) under the thrall of the demonic Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgard).
If that sounds like it might be too close for comfort during our own actual pandemic – fear not! This show skips straight to the aftermath (and missing much of what makes King’s classic so compelling and timely in the first place, but I’ll get to that later!). The show follows the residents of “The Boulder Free Zone” as they try to rebuild the town and defend themselves from an imminent attack by Flagg and his peons in “New Vegas.”
I’ll be frank. The show is a major misfire on multiple levels. However, its one bright spot is the casting. James Marsden is Stu Redman, and while he’s not the blue collar everyman of the novel (at one point a doctor in a government bunker wonders why Stu is immune and looking at his enormous pecs and blue eyes it feels quite obvious that he is immune because he’s Superman!), he still oozes charm, warmth, and genial goodwill. Odessa Young is solid as the new-mom-to-be Frannie Goldsmith. Alexander Skarsgard is his sexy menacing self as “The Walking Dude” Randall Flagg. Whoopi Goldberg is, of course, perfect as the mysterious yet grounded Mother Abagail (even if the show is not actually sure what to do with her character). But the real stand-out star is Brad William Henke (of Orange is the New Black) as Tom Cullen. It’s a remarkable feat, considering how easy it is to go wrong or offensively cartoonish (see Ezra Miller’s performance as the Trashcan Man for example) when playing mentally disabled characters, but Henke keeps it simple. He focuses on Tom’s optimism, his good nature, and his love of helping others. His performance is the savior of the show. M-O-O-N and that spells Brad William Henke! Unfortunately, as mentioned above, Ezra Miller’s cartoonishly deranged Trashcan Man is outrageously offensive, and speaking of cartoonish, Owen Teague’s interpretation of ultimate incel Harold Lauder is mostly mugging – contorting his face and body in what feels like an imitation of Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura.
However, the biggest problem with The Stand, the one that feeds and amplifies every other issue, is the narrative structure. By taking King’s sweeping epic about the slow collapse and eventual rebuilding of society and reducing it to a series of flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, literally there are multiple triple flashbacks) the story becomes a muddled and confusing highlights reel. The structure change is baffling considering this is a nine hour miniseries and not a two and a half hour movie. There is certainly time for the story to be told properly. But it isn’t, and so character motivations and arcs are shattered. Major secondary players in the novel, like Ray or Judge Harris, are reduced to empty pawns. They show up occasionally, and the other characters care about them, but you – the audience – are unclear why because the show spares no time for their stories. Which feels particularly egregious for Ray and Judge Harris because these characters have also been gender-swapped from male (in the novel) to female (Ray is played by Irene Bedard and Judge Harris by Gabrielle Rose). It’s a waste of story and of the talents of these two actresses, not to mention it’s an insulting tease at the possibilities of gender-swapped storytelling. It feels like a crass attempt at grabbing those highly sought after 2020 “woke points.” Like saying “Look! We cast two actresses over 50! And one of them is indigenous!” and then giving those actresses almost nothing to do. It’s a bait and switch, whether purposeful or not.
And they aren’t the only female characters to be underserved. The only female character given any space in the show is Frannie Goldsmith, the pregnant college student who becomes one of the leaders of the “Boulder Free Zone.” And again this goes back to the problems with the show’s structure. So much of what is compelling in King’s novel is watching these characters first in their everyday lives, then navigating the slow collapse of society and the loss of everyone they know, and finally seeing the choices they make when given the opportunity to rebuild the world. Will they try to create a truly free and equal utopia or will they choose the path of slavery and executions because it gets the lights on faster? Following their small threads as they weave into the larger pattern of the age old story of good versus evil. So much of what informs their choices at the end begins when they meet each other on the road to Boulder. When you take that away, it’s impossible for the audience to understand why characters make the choices they do unless they have also read the book. The biggest example of this disservice is one of the show’s antagonists Nadine Cross (Amber Heard). Without giving away too much of either the book or the show, Cross is… a double-crosser. But, unlike the book, you never see her doubts, her fears, her journey of increased isolation, her moments of possible salvation (i.e. finding Joe and becoming his surrogate mother); you only see her fully committed to Flagg’s dark purpose. And so when she does have a moment where she begs Larry to save her, it comes completely out of left field. It rings empty and false. You don’t understand why she would do this, and it feels like the show’s writers don’t either except that it happened in the book.
They don’t understand what to do with most of their characters. Mother Abagail is transformed from a badass old woman living off the grid in her own home to one who is passively waiting for Nick Andros to rescue her from her nursing home. Nick Andros (Henry Zaga), the deaf mute man who suffers unspeakable hardships but becomes one of the leaders of Boulder, becomes nothing more than the go-between for “Mother A” and the rest of the Boulder team. Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo) is a narcissistic, drug addicted, rock star who struggles with putting others first but ultimately manages to become a better man is transformed into just a good dude who had a hit song one time. Even Harold Lauder, the one character the show is obsessed with dwelling on (the show opens from his point of view!) and giving moments of empathy and grace to, feels fundamentally misunderstood. The show feels both dependent on the audience already knowing the characters and being able to fill in the blanks themselves, while also missing the point of what makes them compelling characters completely.
And perhaps that is what it really boils down to. The show’s writers have a source material that they don’t understand. What makes the novel so compelling (despite its more dated and problematic elements) is that it’s not just a story about the final battle of “good versus evil” (In fact, the “battle” itself is quite brief!) but the journey of those final people and the choices they make along the way. Without the journey, there are no choices, and without those choices the characters have no sides to stand on.
The Stand airs Thursdays on CBS All Access.