It will never not be spooky that a new adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand came out in 2020. Much like the year itself, the story begins with a pandemic and goes on to showcase some truly awful human behaviour. CBS All Access certainly has timeliness on its side — but what about the rest?
Note: For the purposes of this review, we were able to view episodes one through six, and we won’t be getting into plot spoilers here — so anyone who’s fallen behind on their King studies can read on without worry.
King’s The Stand was first released in 1978, then got a revised and expanded version in 1990. It runs nearly 1,200 pages and is stuffed with memorable scenes and characters, including recurring King villain Randall Flagg. While the book is obviously a perennial bestseller, this new limited TV series also has to compete with the 1994 ABC miniseries, which, despite some lingering flaws, did manage to compress an engrossing version of the story into just four episodes.
This new take, developed by Josh Boone (The New Mutants) and Benjamin Cavell (Justified), gets nine episodes, an all-star cast led by Alexander Skarsgård (as Flagg) and Whoopi Goldberg (as the anti-Flagg, Mother Abagail), an apparently generous budget, and the luxury of airing on a streaming service, which means it doesn’t have to be sanitised for network broadcast. But even with more resources, adapting such an epic, sprawling book to the screen could not have been easy, especially when it’s something as well-known as The Stand. First, you have to decide which characters and storylines to emphasise, then you have to cast actors who’ll mesh well together across a huge canvas, and assemble all the pieces of the story in a way that the audience will be able to follow.
This version of The Stand relies heavily on a patchwork of flashbacks (including my personal bugaboo, the flashback within a flashback). This is true especially in its early episodes, which are burdened by the need to introduce an avalanche of characters — the cast includes James Marsden, Amber Heard, Greg Kinnear, Odessa Young, Henry Zaga, Jovan Adepo, Owen Teague, Brad William Henke, Daniel Sunjata, Marilyn Manson, Nat Wolff, Eion Bailey, Katherine McNamara, Hamish Linklater, and Heather Graham among others.
The story traces their actions as Captain Trips — the name given to the deadly plague accidentally unleashed by the U.S. military — gets to work wiping out 99% of the population, eventually setting up a cosmic clash between ideologically opposed survivors. Viewers must therefore pay close attention to the timeline, as those first few episodes tend to pause the action to dip back into the past to give us context. It’s necessary, in that it helps us understand who these people are and why we should care about them, but it doesn’t do the overall pacing any favours.
With so many moving parts already, The Stand also has the task of updating and altering certain characters and story points to make them feel more appropriate to 2020. The most prominent example of this is Mother Abagail; Goldberg has been vocal about not making her character an extension of the “Magical Negro” stereotype, and the Oscar winner does her best to infuse her with gravitas (and a bit of formidable grumpiness) that helps make Mother A feel more well-rounded. But she does remain pretty wedged in her familiar spot: an elderly Black lady who suddenly starts getting messages from God, then pops up in peoples’ dreams to tell them what to do. You probably won’t discover anything resembling racism in her depiction here, but you also won’t find anything groundbreaking about the approach to this particular character.
There are other examples of this that meet with more success; at times, you can really sense that the creators were genuinely trying to have it both ways, staying as true as possible to King’s novel while also evolving. Casting Black actor Jovan Adepo (Watchman) as musician Larry Underwood (written as a white character) was a great call. Yes, he obviously makes the story more diverse, but the way he’s written — helped greatly by Adepo’s natural charisma — shows us a man who’s floundering even before Captain Trips knocks his New York City life sideways. After the reality of the plague sets in, he briefly considers the temptations of Flagg’s “New Vegas,” then begins to find a higher purpose (while still asking questions) as he makes his way cross-country to Mother Abagail’s Boulder Free Zone. In the scheme of things he’s just one spoke on a huge wheel, but it’s enough for us really get to know Larry. We like him despite his very human faults, and we care about what happens to him.
But 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. 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.
Quite clearly, at times it feels like there are so many characters it’s hard to get invested in anyone’s fate — and somehow, having more time to tell the story as compared to the 1994 miniseries seems to have made this problem worse, or at least feel more noticeably uneven. The standout performance is absolutely Owen Teague (who had a small but notable role in another Stephen King adaptation: It) as Harold Lauder, whose incel/school-shooter vibes and frenzied, unrequited crush on Frannie make him immediately repellent — he’s also so realistic, he’s even scarier than Flagg at times. But as uncomfortable as it may be for us to watch Harold creep around, Teague is given enough breathing room to make us realise it’s a combination of outside factors and his own internal anguish that’s made Harold such a twisted fiend. Of course, if every complicated soul in The Stand was given enough screen time to similarly explore their depths, the series would be 90 hours instead of nine.
King’s story has endured so long mostly because of those complex characters, but its themes are also a key part of what makes The Stand so compelling. They poke into the archetypal realm of good versus evil — as much as the series’ showrunners want to emphasise it’s way more complicated than that — as well as the pretty agreeable idea that a fresh start, for an individual and even the entire human race, is still possible after an unthinkable catastrophe. It invites your imagination to ponder the age-old question: “What would you do?”
Like the book, the new series — which wrapped just as covid-19 started spreading around the world — is definitely more interested in the aftermath than the actual plague, and the scope of its apparently global story hovers tightly around its core group of survivors. And while Captain Trips is far more dangerous than the coronavirus, causing near-instant death for all but the few who are randomly immune, it’s hard not to pick up on the similarities to our own 2020; you can find them especially in the on-the-nose news reports that filter through the background noise, at least until the power cuts out. How do people respond to a devastating outbreak that threatens everything they’ve come to take for granted? And what happens next? We are literally in that moment right now, and some of the things that The Stand predicts — including, but not limited to, a lot of people following a misguided leader with cult-like devotion — do feel uncomfortably real.
A lot of The Stand’s final verdict will rest on its last episode — it famously features a brand new coda written by King himself, which we didn’t get to watch ahead of this review. It bears keeping in mind that The Stand’s vision of the end of the world has been around for over 40 years, so the fact that it speaks so loudly to our present moment — even without taking into account the updates made for this version — is perhaps its most impressive quality. But on the other hand, whether or not you want to subject your weary psyche to an earnestly crafted TV series that somewhat mirrors our present reality (albeit with added magical elements, a surfeit of extremely good-looking people, slick production design, and some well-placed pop songs) is up to you.
“We all have a choice,” as Mother Abagail tells Nadine. “Until we don’t.”
The Stand debuts December 18, with new episodes weekly through February 12. It does not currently have a set release in Australia.