‘The Stand’ Review: Stephen King’s CBS All Access Adaptation Is a Plague Unto Itself

Back in January 2020, aka the good old days, HBO released its TV adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Outsider.” Based on a book that is as intrinsically unsound as it is painfully overwritten, Richard Price still managed to make an absorbing, even exciting televised version, with the help of a great cast. Such a remodeling feat deserves its own “Extreme Makeover” episode, but despite the first season’s success, “The Outsider” is already over. HBO chose not to proceed with a second season, and now, as 2020 crawls to the finish line, I can only hope a similar fate awaits “The Stand.” Billed as a limited series but with all the pacing problems and world-building holes of a warm-up season, this King-ly bookend to the year in television is both the wrong kind of timely and another miscalculated rejiggering of the author’s longest novel.

It is also miscast, in nearly every role. “The Stand” isn’t bolstered by a fleet of skilled actors so much as it’s hindered by watching those proven talents struggle to find a credible tone within the series’ cleaned-up TV sheen and dirty allegory for good vs. evil. Showrunner Benjamin Cavell, alongside pilot director and executive producer Josh Boone as well as Stephen King’s son, Owen King, serving as producer, stick to the book’s story — save for a few choices likely considered too dark for mainstream audiences — but can’t expand on characters beyond what now feel like outdated archetypes, which is often a struggle in adapting lengthy novels.

Also curious is the choice to introduce the series via a flashback structure. “The Stand” starts out with a hazmat-clad clean-up crew dragging dead bodies out of houses near Boulder, Colo. But before you can say “pandemic,” the story jumps back five months to properly introduce one of the team members, Harold Lauder (Owen Teague), in the early days of the deadly virus. Harold is an aspiring writer, dark web reader, and altogether angry young man. When he falls off his bike after being chased by bullies (who are on foot, by the way, which is so nonsensical it prompts Harold to wonder aloud if they’re “T-1000s”), he plods home, sees his cracked laptop screen, and snaps the rest of his (presumably operational) computer in half while screaming into the void.

Harold is also hopelessly infatuated with Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young), which is made clear when he peeps through her fence to watch his fellow twenty-something crush soothe her sick father, but we nevertheless get to watch Harold masturbate to a physical photo of her like it’s still 1990 and smart phones, let alone Facebook, haven’t been invented yet. That Harold is our gateway into this version of “The Stand,” not Frannie or literally anyone else, is a problem unto itself, even if Teague does manage to embrace his character’s creepy vibes with memorable panache.

Even more debilitating is the realization these flashbacks are going to keep happening every time we meet a new character. “The Stand” is famous for having a massive cast, and while jumping ahead in time so we can get past the pandemic is a sound instinct — the show’s viral outbreak is close enough to reality to remind viewers what’s going on outside, but far too extreme to provide meaningful parallels — repeatedly going back in time kills forward momentum. And it doesn’t help that all these flashbacks fail to set up any intriguing “how did they get from here to there” teases.

Take our next lead: In the present, Stu Redman (James Marsden) is just a good ol’ Texan being deprived of his rights. He’s stuck in a government-mandated quarantine station, as one of the few people seemingly immune from a virus that kills more than 99 percent of the people it reaches. But when we jump back to see how Stu got there, his backstory is tied up in someone else’s timeline. He was at the gas station a dying army guard crashed into after abandoning his post at the lab where the outbreak started. Phew. That’s not that much to unpack, but “The Stand” makes it feel like a friggin’ maze. What do we know about Stu? Don’t worry about it, he’s a good guy (with a purposefully inconsistent accent). What do we learn about the army officer? Don’t worry about it, he’s dead. What do we learn about the virus? The government was involved, but again, don’t worry about that part, it doesn’t really matter.

Like the book, “The Stand” uses the virus to set up a new world; a world split into two groups. One group dreams of Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg), a 100-year-old Black woman who speaks to God and offers anyone who meets her in Colorado the chance to live follow His word. The other group also dreams of Mother Abagail, but they instead choose to join up with Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård), a “dark man” who turns Sin City into exactly that: a  paradise of impropriety, where gladiatorial matches involve chain saws, orgies pop up in casino lobbies, and people can pretty much do whatever they want — so long as Randall approves.

That Randall is so clearly a stand-in for Satan and Mother Abigail is God Herself may be trite in 2020, but it’s fine. This is the match-up “The Stand” promises, and the limited series must deliver. But resurrecting one of the O.G. Magical Negroes without much alteration is a dubious choice, as is the cheesy staging of their dreamscapes and the unspecified nature of their powers. Goldberg’s role doesn’t require enough screen time for her performance to register, but Skarsgård’s hair, gait, and bigger, louder choices are often betrayed by the production around him. Be it odd framing choices or overly staged set design, Randall comes across more silly than scary.

Through six episodes, “The Stand” parades in more recognizable guest stars, including an underutilized Clifton Collins Jr. and an over-the-top Ezra Miller (hoo boy, did he go for it), but  the series regulars feel just a slight. Jovan Adepo (“The Leftovers”) plays Larry Underwood, a rock star with (you guessed it) a drug problem; Amber Heard (“Magic Mike XXL”), as Nadine Cross, is defined by her devious sexual appetite and salvation through motherhood; Greg Kinnear (“BoJack Horseman”) is a hippie with a heart of gold; and Nat Woolf (“Room 104”) gets the worst of it, as a celebrity cop killer whose backstory reveals the murder was an accident. In the book, Lloyd was a mass murderer who thus became Randall’s obvious choice for a right hand man. In the series, he’s a bumbling wannabe tough guy who Randall would know better than to trust with his evil empire.

“The Stand” has faced a long road to each of its adaptations. King revised and reprinted the book 12 years after its initial publishing. Various film versions never got off the ground. The 1994 ABC miniseries was well-received at the time, but was also distinctly a product of that time. Perhaps that’s where it belongs. Even with a new ending penned by King himself coming up, the CBS All Access take feels like it’s stuck in time; half a cheesy made-for-broadcast event series, half a gritty, all-too-dark dive into the bottom barrels of prestige TV. Maybe it’s time to set this story down.

Grade: D+

“The Stand” premiered Thursday, December 17 on CBS All Access. New episodes will be available weekly.

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