The Stand. Available on CBS All Access Thursday, December 17.
With 1,152 pages and something on the order of 25 major characters, The Stand is Stephen King's most ambitious novel, a grim and sweeping tale of a weaponized flu virus known as Captain Trips that escapes from a military lab and lays waste to the world.
For Hollywood, it's proven the most impenetrable. After 14 years in Development Hell and two failed attempts to make it into a theatrical release (one of them with zombiemeister George Romero directing a script from King himself), it finally emerged as a six-hour ABC miniseries in 1994. "Eight hours, which seem to fly by in like, oh, 38 hours," said the Orlando Sentinel, a judgment that summed up both the critical and audience response to a dumbfounding dud.
In 2011, memories dimmed, Hollywood began trying again. This new Stand project morphed from a conventional theatrical release into an eight-hour Showtime miniseries that would be followed by an in-the-theaters movie. When financial stakes were pounded through the hearts of all those ideas, another proposal finally found favor at CBS: a 10-hour miniseries to be broadcast on the streaming CBS All Access service. Six months of shooting finished in March, just before the highly nonfictional coronavirus began locking down America.
Admire that perseverance, if you must. But don't let appreciation for a work ethic, or even love for the stay-up-all-night-reading novel, suck you into spending 10 hours watching The Stand. It's a mess. Wait for the 2036 version instead.
Unlike a lot of bad television, there's no need to feel malice for the producers and writers of The Stand. Sorting out all those characters and story lines, as each of them painstakingly journeys from their dead little towns (or big ones—one of the more watchable chunks of the show involves a couple of characters making a harrowing escape from a kingdom-of-the-rats New York City) to what they hope will be refuge in Colorado is damnably complicated.
But the fact remains that the screenwriters (six of them, including King's son and sometimes writing partner Owen) didn't get the job done, and most of their wounds are self-inflicted. Instead of sticking to one story and one chronology at a time, The Stand darts back and forth from character to character, locale to locale, flashback to flash-forward. Are we in Vermont or Pennsylvania? Is this before the virus has emerged, or at its height, or after nearly everybody is dead? Has that woman broken up with her boyfriend yet, or is he still blissfully unaware that he's about to be dumped?
The haphazard structure also deflates many of The Stand's most dramatic moments. The big reveal of one character's secret pregnancy is practically a poster child for anti-climacticism, since she was seen waddling around in a flash-forward scene a couple of episodes back, her stomach looking like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man's. Ultimately, deciphering The Stand is something like pulling apart a plate of scrambled eggs in hopes of reassembling the yolks and whites and cheeses.
That's an absolutely fatal compromise of King's novel. Its strength was in the often-lengthy tales of how the various characters—a one-hit-wonder rock star, an outcast high-school kid, a half-blind deaf-mute, a cynical sociologist, a school teacher with dark fantasies, and a burly man whose physical might is offset with mental weakness, among others—make their way toward Colorado. Along the way, they suffer everything from ruthless banditry to sewer-rat attacks to cannibalism.
The cast mostly doesn't rise much above the level of competence—nor, to be fair, drop much below it. The notable exceptions are Brad William Henke (Orange Is the New Black) making his mentally challenged character Tom Cullen impossible not to love; Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood) projecting a palpable sense of evil as Randall Flagg, the baddest of the bad guys; and Henry Zaga, who pulls off a nearly impossible assignment in portraying Nick Andros, a man who can't hear or speak and can barely see.
What draws these characters on their separate treks toward a hoped-for salvation are dreams of a sweet, elderly black woman who begs them to join her. But they're also whipsawed by much more troubling visions of a sinister prophet who's setting up shop in Las Vegas. The good black woman accumulates all the poets, social workers, and community-college intellectuals; the bad white man all the pyros, nymphomaniacs, and physicists. Guess which side has the upper hand when the two camps square off for a theological showdown with a side of nuclear weapons?
These conceits were silly even back in 1979 when The Stand was published. King's Luddite cosmology, which seems to be drawn in equal parts from 1950s big-bug sci-fi movies and 1960s campus urban myths about big-bellied cops torturing long-hair kids, has always been simple-minded. The Stand was the first of his novels to present ideas (unless you consider the conviction that Vampires Are Bad to be a comprehensive philosophical school), and they were stupidly authoritarian. The Boulder Free State, which King presented as a return to original American values after Captain Trips has kicked over the societal table, is a theocracy headed by a self-appointed prophet and administered by her secretive and unelected sock puppets. And this is the virtuous side of King's universe.
Unfortunately, the sabotage of the novel's truly enthralling story-telling leaves its ideology as its strongest element. If you're interested in a pithy discourse on how a world government seemingly modeled on Iran, except the mullahs are really nice (and good-looking!), then The Stand is the miniseries you've been waiting for. Otherwise, it will be of interest mainly to King nerds who want to spot heretical deviations from the novel. There are a number of them, mostly for the sake of wokeness. (For instance, the saintly deaf-mute Nick Andros, a Nebraskan in the book, has become an illegal Salvadoran immigrant in the miniseries, Andros being an old Salvadoran family name.)
But the general thrust of the novel has been maintained in the TV show, with one possible—and potentially enormous—exception: King has said in interviews that he wrote a new ending for the miniseries. CBS only made four episodes available for review, so there's no telling what that might be. With any luck, he'll make himself into a character, then wake up next to Suzanne Pleshette and reveal that it was all a bad dream and the vampires are back.