The Stand, CBS All Access’ new adaptation of Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic epic, begins not with the escape of the plague that serves as the novel’s inciting incident, but its aftermath. Maggot-strewn bodies, necks bloated like bullfrogs, slumped in church pews, will be jarring enough for fans of the book (or Mick Garris’ faithful 1994 miniseries). They’ve been there for weeks, and survivors, clad in gas masks and ponchos, have arrived to clean up the mess. Entering the story in medias res , but the first living face they see may come as even more of a shock. It’s not humble hero Stu Redman (James Marsden) or even the prophetic Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg), but Harold Lauder (Owen Teague), the proto-incel who spends much of the book haunting its fringes.
It’s a bold move, but an inspired one. Harold wasn’t written to be one of the story’s main drivers, but his character serves as perhaps the purest vessel for King’s themes of free will and new beginnings, both of which form the spine of The Stand’s strong pilot episode. In flashbacks, we see a bullied Harold watch in wonder as his Maine hometown is decimated by a mysterious super-flu from which he appears to be immune. Unmoved by the death of his distant family, he sees the looming apocalypse as a fresh start, a stroke of fate—especially since the only other survivor in Ogunquit is his longtime obsession, Frannie (Odessa Young). As he thrives, Frannie collapses, broken by the loss of everyone and everything she loved. Both of them begin having strange dreams, some filled with a kindly, silver-haired prophet, others with an ominous “dark man” with big promises. One invites them to Boulder, Colorado, the other to Las Vegas—both with the intention to rebuild.
There are choices to be made: Do you continue? Do you evolve? And which of the two potential saviors do you seek out? Harold and Frannie have wildly different reasons for soldiering on, yet their fates remain tumultuously intertwined. If you’re looking to shake up the structure of King’s novel, this is the way to do it.
Exciting as it is, however, a question of clarity lingers. King’s book tells a chronological story that begins with the man-made virus’ accidental release and its subsequent crash-landing in the East Texas town of Arnette. Through the lens of Stu Redman, the only local immune to the virus, we bear witness to the government’s scrambled attempts to quarantine, to silence the media, and to try and understand why Stu is immune. These essential chapters help frame the pandemic from both a national and a global perspective. That context is mostly lost here, and the production never quite manages to convey the institutional elements, from the military response to the media suppression to the general collapse of government. The pilot’s B-plot, in which a quarantined Stu gets a crash course in the decimation of the general order, is too rushed to make an impact. Co-creators Josh Boone and Benjamin Cavell are much more interested in how it all impacts a couple of teenagers in Maine.
Which is good, mostly. A character-based approach is appropriate given that King’s characters are often cited as his greatest strength. But The Stand is so big, with so many characters—King’s expanded version, generally considered the definitive text, runs more than 1,150 pages—that an adaptation’s emphasis on one plotline is likely to come at the expense of a half-dozen others. Garris’ four-part version wasn’t enough to contain King’s story, and neither is this nine-part effort. Will those unfamiliar with the story be able to enjoyably process the complex narrative and abundant character arcs with the added challenge of navigating a peripatetic, time-hopping structure? The pilot, the cleanest and most efficient of the six episodes available for review, argues that they will. The follow-up installment is haphazard, though; we witness the fall of New York City with Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo), a pop rocker whose first hit single arrived right as the world was ending. It’s a messy episode that tries to weave in too many characters and ideas, and the method of taking a hammer to the timeline begins to blur the through line.
That said, Boone and Cavell are clearly confident in the stories they’ve chosen to foreground (and the ones they’ve cut). The Stand is filled with bold, surprising choices, from its non-linear structure to its reinterpretations of iconic set pieces to the ways it reimagines a few key characters. Some are inspired: Nat Wolff’s brazen take on henchman Lloyd Henreid—Riff Raff by way of Stevie Janowski—is an unexpected delight. Others disappoint: The potentially exciting inclusion of the easily excisable Rita Blakemoor (Heather Graham) proves that Garris was probably right in writing her out. For every missed swing there’s a hit, whether it’s a vivid and cinematic set piece, a shocking moment of tenderness, or even a clever needle drop (hello, Blue Öyster Cult).
But what keeps even the messiest and murkiest sections of The Stand gripping are the performances, specifically from Teague and Young. Teague, who previously dabbled in King’s oeuvre as It’s Patrick Hockstetter, excels at capturing a character at a crossroads, torn between delusions of grandeur and the comfort of being part of a community. Like a teenager, he nimbly pivots between exultation and frustration, fear and rage. In moments of menace, his skeletal smile seems to stretch into eternity. Young, meanwhile, conveys the psychological impact of mass loss better than anyone in the cast, movingly carving out a journey from hopelessness to optimism on her journey from Maine to Boulder.
Six episodes in, it still feels premature to comment on Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg) and Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård), the dream-invading titans of their respective communities. The story’s supernatural elements are its most confounding and problematic, and their limited screen time and distance from the immediate action thus far can make it feel as if the creative team isn’t quite sure what to do with them. Will they emerge, as they did in the ’94 miniseries, as avatars of simplistic, reductive notions of good and bad? Or will we get a more nuanced exploration of what these fleshy gods represent on a grander scale? As society evolves, so, too, do its notions about what’s good and what’s not.
Reviews by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya will run weekly beginning Thursday, December 17.