Are you tired of global pandemics? CBS All-Access hopes not, and for good reason: her nine-episode adaptation of Stephen Kings 1141-page giant “The standIt’s damn good. The series is a sprawling post-apocalyptic epic about the flu-immune survivors of a deadly pandemic and the figureheads of good and evil that draw these characters into opposing camps, asking questions about the human condition and man’s struggle to define himself as either builder or destroyer. It’s also a damn exciting clock with interesting, identifiable characters that allow audiences to see themselves in the action, good or bad.
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Getting this story off the ground is no easy task. With no less than 12 main characters to be introduced along with a global epidemic to bring it into play. Showrunner Benjamin Cavell The introductory work is carefully divided into just three or four characters per episode for the first half of the series to gain insight into their lives before and after the pandemic and to paint a fuller picture of this world.
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“The Stand” doesn’t waste time on it either, using Episode 1 to give viewers a glimpse into the spread of “Captain Trips”, the nickname given to the government-developed flu virus with a 99% death rate. Given the massive cast that needs to be introduced and some of the more mystical elements that run the narrative, the series waits until episodes two and three to explore broader collapses of society in dense urban centers (and the visions its survivors experience) cancel. The conflict between the camps and the putrefaction within groups of survivors on either side dominate the middle part of the series, largely leaving the flashbacks from that point behind for the real thrust of the story to emerge.
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And while the scenes of social decay are some of the most famous and memorable parts of the source novel (and the 1994 miniseries), they are both narrative and thematically secondary to what comes after. This is a story about characters who literally take a stand against evil forces, embodied by King’s returning villain Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgard). In addition, it challenges its characters to reckon with the great, unsolved question of humanity.
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Has technology and the proliferation of wealth brought our species to the point of no return? If we were forced to do so, could we survive and thrive as part of a post-Hobbesian society free from our modern traps? The frequent back-and-forth movements between the “present” (five months after the pandemic) and the outbreak even in the early episodes add to the importance of this query, for even if the audience gets the details of what happened almost six months earlier Contemporary scenes keep popping up to show what these people do after the dust settles. Cavell and his writing team, perhaps aware that their audience could be beyond the entire pandemic mood, are trying to put those higher questions into focus, and the consequences are better for that.
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The diverse list of characters finds well-cast and skillfully adapted counterparts in the new series, starting with James Marsden as Stu Redman, the nominal leader of the “Boulder Free Zone”. Once Stu and Co. opened a shop in Boulder, the conflict between their spiritual guide, mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg), and the evil flag in Las Vegas reaches a boiling point, resulting in the eponymous level between the forces of good and evil. Holy smoke, however, there are many people and stories to juggle with and with only nine hours to tell the full story, some characters develop and flourish more than others.
Part of this is down to the source material, which gives some characters thoughtful, dynamic arcs and growth and little to others. Stu, for example, is pretty fully trained from the start and doesn’t change much from the beginning to the end of this story, and although his partner Frannie (Odessa Young), suffers the same fate in the book, this new miniseries doesn’t make the same mistake. Just enough work is being done to give Frannie a compelling backstory that is capable of evolution. As her Free Zone Committee member Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo) she is practically unrecognizable between her first and last appearance.
And it’s not just the heroes worth talking about. The antagonists also enjoy it! Flagg’s seduction of would-be super bandit Lloyd Henreid (Nat Wolff) features some of the show’s most intriguing dramas across the first six episodes (all cleared for review up to this point) and illustrates the power of the “dark man” in this world. Owen Teague also lights up the screen every time he appears as Harold Lauder from Boulder, whose forced smile exercises indicate a growing darkness on the horizon. The tall, lanky Teague is a far cry from the chubby, greasy-faced Harold in King’s book, but what he brings to the on-screen character’s self-glorifying narcissism is ripped right off the page.
Some other characters and story beats are different from the source material. While most of them serve a narrative purpose (Frannie’s backstory with Harold, bringing Mother Abigail to Colorado before the pandemic, General Starkey’s encounter with Stu), some will likely remove Loyalists from the bugbook. Nick Andros (Henry Zaga) is a far more distant character in the show than in the book, for example. Like optimizing the series by Rita Blakemore (Heather Graham), it’s not necessarily an improvement and leaves a confusing taste in the viewer’s mouth. However, these are the exceptions rather than the rule, and most of the tweaks and shortcuts are there to get the characters and narration to their goals.
This is what is called “The Stand”: the goal is more the point. The series works because its story is elemental and timeless, but the “friends made along the way” ensure that a viewer comes back more for each episode. Larry experiences the first mature growth of his life, Harold hugs his darkest inccel fantasies, Frannie emerges from desperation into a leadership position or even Teddy (Eion Bailey) to realize that he survived the apocalypse only to end up in one of the world’s weed capitals. All of them shed light on itching that different people would scratch if it did. In this way it is Escape at its finest and leaves any question about COVID fatigue dampening the excitement for this one. It’s by no means perfect, but the series works about as well as it can reasonably be expected given the source, and never goes through a dull minute. As Tom Cullen (Brad William Henke) would say the series is M-O-O-N: that spells excellent. [B+]
“The Stand” will air December 17th on CBS All Access.