Stephen King TV adaptations have a few hits and a lot of misses. 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).
Nevertheless, the crux of The Stand is (or should be) an emotional investigation into the lives of those who are left alive post-pandemic. Influenced by two spirits, one good (Mother Abigail, played by Whoopi Goldberg) and one evil (Randall Flagg, played by Alexander Skarsgard), the survivors begin to band together and choose their moral ground, with certain people elevated as leaders by each of the opposing forces.
Despite the show skipping all of the details, this is a fascinating idea to explore. And even the The Stand’s murky storytelling occasionally clears to reveal both hope regarding the better human nature that leads to a quietly utopian existence on the one hand, and the frightening lawlessness of the initial aftermath on the other. Some people grill burgers in a big box store alongside other families, while elsewhere, outlaws gnaw on the meat of the dead.
Instead of initially providing us with a linear present-day narrative and giving us episodic flashbacks for each of the characters we meet (a la Lost), The Stand instead chooses to tuck flashbacks into flashbacks and then into dreams and back into flashbacks in way that is completely disorienting. By attempting to introduce so many new characters alongside disparate backstories, The Stand’s ambitions are throttled by poor time management, messy scripting, and chaotic editing. It means we’re left with no emotional investment in any of these characters, and their choices have zero impact … in a story where choices and emotional impact are meant to be everything.
CBS All Access clearly wants to make a splash with the series, collecting an incredibly impressive roster for its cast of knowns and lesser-knowns, including James Marsden, Amber Heard, Greg Kinnear, Odessa Young, Henry Zaga, Jovan Adepo, Owen Teague, Ezra Miller, Katherine McNamara, Heather Graham, and a host of short-lived cameos that I shall not spoil. Sadly, despite some excellent work from Adepo, Skarsgard, and the scene-stealing Brad William Henke, it’s not nearly enough to counteract the rest. (It should also be noted that no one on God’s green Earth is prepared for the performance Ezra Miller gives in this as “Trashcan Man.”)
I could go on and on about the way that male characters earnestly and repeatedly say “wow, she’s a girl I wouldn’t have had a chance with unless I was the last man on Earth. And now I am!” and how angel-or-sex-pot characterizations are all that define the women of the series through its first 6 episodes, but it’s not really worth throwing more fuel on this fire. As every episode started I felt like I had missed three more in between, or maybe three seasons. There are some decent moments buried in The Stand, but it’s so generally mishandled on the whole that it’s not worth slogging through the rest to get to them. If you are looking for your King fix, try Castle Rock on Hulu instead.
The first episode of The Stand is now available on CBS All Access.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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