CBS All Access’ all-star miniseries adaptation of the timely Stephen King novel bogs itself down in a helter-skelter structure and an acute lack of stakes.
This review was written jointly by Spool staff writers Beau North and Megan Sunday.
In a year of heartbreak and loss, maybe we shouldn’t have been so looking forward to this adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand. After all, any series featuring 99% of the population dying of a deadly and unstoppable pandemic might feel a little too terrifying for some audiences given our current circumstances. Those folks can rest easy, as there’s not enough in CBS All Access’ limited series to scare anyone—unless you count just having Ezra Miller on screen.
The Stand was never going to be the easiest thing to adapt, but there was hope when the project was announced by creators Josh Boone and Ben Cavell. Maybe, just maybe, with the right cast and good writers and modern effects, it might not be the slog that Mick Garris’ 1994 miniseries was. But Boone and Cavell make a series of choices that not only diminish the awesome terror of the first part of King’s novel, but the characters themselves, their journeys, and any reason we should care about them.
Rather than cutting the massive story into linear chunks, the narrative comes through in disorienting flashbacks and flashforwards, cutting out most of the arc of the Captain Trips superflu altogether. As a result, you never truly get a grasp on who the characters were before the flu and thus have no grasp of how they’ve grown, changed, evolved (or in some cases, devolved).
The only characters that seem to have any sense of timelessly unbothered normalcy are Greg Kinnear’s stoner philosopher professor Glen Bateman, and Tom Cullen, played with a great deal of care by Brad William Henke.
Though she comes into her own as the story progresses, the script gives heroine Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young) little to no backstory beyond “pregnant,” so we never really learn whether her eventual status as a leader of the new world is any kind of growth. Was she a leader Before? A follower? A good person? A bad person? We know what Uber Incel Harold Lauder (Owen Teague) thinks of her, but she’s otherwise a blank slate.
The same goes for the vast array of other characters, all of whom fall short of being archetypes and lapse directly into cliche.
The novel is a famously weighty tome (the revised edition comes in at 1152 pages) and one thing it provides in spades is a backstory. We know these characters’ pasts, we know their inner workings, we know them as more than just “The Crazy Girl” (Katherine McNamara’s Julie Lawry) or “The Old Lady” (Gabrielle Rose’s The Judge). By eliminating much of what came before to focus on the drama of after, the audience isn’t able to connect with any of the characters.
Boone and Cavell make a series of choices that not only diminish the awesome terror of the first part of King’s novel, but the characters themselves, their journeys, and any reason we should care about them.
Most disappointingly, this same neglect of backstory hampers the plotlines of vital characters like Nadine Cross (Amber Heard), a virgin schoolteacher who has been haunted and ensnared by the series’ villain Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) since her childhood. Nadine’s journey is a snarl of free will versus destiny but is instead glossed over for the most part save for a couple of “racy” sequences to show us that Nadine is sexually enraptured by Flagg. Okay? So is everyone. What makes her special? Quite a bit, but you’d never know it.
Obviously adapting an 1152-page novel into a 9-episode miniseries is never going to run smoothly or incorporate everything that a fan of the novel could want, but there has to be a balance between slavish devotion to the text and the lifeless trek from point A to point B that we see here.
All that being said, there are some bright spots to enjoy here. Skarsgard makes a very decent Randall Flagg, though much of the character’s jocular verve has been toned down. Eion Bailey is a godsend as Teddy Weizak—a role played by Stephen King in the 1994 series—bringing warmth and humanity into the Boulder Free Zone.
It’s fascinating to view Harold Lauder through Teddy’s eyes, to see him without the fog of 4chan that perpetually hangs over him. Henry Zaga’s Nick Andros and Henke’s Tom Cullen do not have enough screen time together for the viewer to get a sense of their profound bond, but the two make good use of the time they’re given together.
Unfortunately, a handful of great performances and some beautiful camera work really isn’t enough to drive home the enormous scope of this story. Where shows like The Walking Dead and Battlestar Galactica succeed is by asking the question of what becomes of humanity when most of the humans are gone? Is it enough just to survive?
The Stand could have—should have—taken its place as first among these shows, especially considering current events outside of TV Land. It could have been a guidepost when we needed it most. Good can triumph, but Evil’s going to take its pound of flesh too. Sadly there is very seldom any notion of stakes, of consequence, or of danger in this ultimately lifeless adaptation.
Oh, and the less said about Ezra Miller’s Trashcan Man, the better.
The Stand comes to CBS All Access December 17th, with new episodes dropping on Thursdays.