In terms of post-apocalyptic shows about a viral communicable disease causing the end of the world, CBS All Access’ “The Stand” falls somewhere between Amazon’s “Utopia” and AMC’s still-kicking “The Walking Dead” franchise. Classier than the former, which gleefully used violence as a narrative shortcut, but somehow more glacially paced than the latter, “The Stand” arrives at a coincidental time given how we live now. But this adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most dense, sprawling works never quite reaches the epic scope illustrated so clearly in the 1978 novel.
Instead, showriunner Benjamin Cavell have applied a strangely sanitized sheen to the central threat of elemental evil, resulting in a miniseries that feels simultaneously over-detailed and underdeveloped. That conflicted quality makes the danger faced by the community serving as humanity’s last stand curiously subdued, and “The Stand” struggles to distinguish itself outside of its exceptional casting choices.
Nearly all of King’s novels have been adapted in one way or another, and “The Stand” miniseries has a precursor of its own: a 1994 version broadcast on ABC with a deep cast of TV and movie stars of that time, including Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, Jamey Sheridan, Ruby Dee, Laura San Giacomo, and Molly Ringwald. Boone and Cavell assemble a similarly stacked roster for their version, turning to actors who might already be familiar to fans of King adaptations (Owen Teague, of the latest film versions of “It” and “It Chapter Two”), legends in their own right (Whoopi Goldberg, adding welcome brusqueness), a number of “Hey! That guy!” guys (James Marsden, Greg Kinnear, Eion Bailey), and the deliciously threatening Alexander Skarsgård, combining the sensuality of his Eric Northman from “True Blood” and the impenetrable malice of his Vernon Sloane from the thriller “Hold the Dark.”
Most key to this whole endeavor are Goldberg and Skarsgård, who play Abagail Freemantle and Randall Flagg, respectively: one side light, the other side dark. But in the six episodes of “The Stand” provided for review, that’s about as developed as these two characters—polar opposites vying for the soul of humanity—get. The miniseries (which will be nine episodes in total, airing weekly on CBS All Access beginning Dec. 17) works in the right details: the dull thud of Flagg’s boots as he approaches, the way he appeals to people’s basest instincts, his immense attractiveness to men and women both. It helps that Skarsgård has chemistry with everyone with whom he shares a scene, from Nat Wolff playing sniveling right-hand man Lloyd Henreid to Amber Heard’s troubled Nadine Cross. But on a grander scale, the inability of “The Stand” to situate the grander ambitions of both Mother Abagail and Flagg demonstrates its narrative shortcomings. Readers of King’s novels, in particular those aware of Flagg’s recurring role in the author’s mythology, will be able to add perspective that the miniseries does not itself provide. Viewers going into “The Stand” without that knowledge, though, might be underwhelmed by how the miniseries presents these options for society’s path forward, and that tonal ineffectiveness permeates throughout.
“The Stand” begins five months after a bioengineered super-flu nicknamed “Captain Trips” kills more than 99 percent of the world’s population. In Boulder, Colo., a couple hundred survivors, drawn together by dreams and visions of Mother Abagail, gather to try and rebuild. Mother Abagail, believing that she speaks as the voice of God, handpicked five people to lead the community, and “The Stand” bounces backward in time to fill in their stories. It’s an unfortunate recurring pattern of the series that the most developed characters all happen to be men. East Texan oilrig worker Stu Redman (Marsden), who was captured by the U.S. military for testing after being the only person to survive coming into direct contact with the original spreader of “Captain Trips.” Aspiring singer-songwriter Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo), whose drug addiction hampered his career and drove a wedge between him and his family before the outbreak. Professor Glen Bateman (Kinnear), who paints his dreams of Abagail and offers well-reasoned advice whenever asked. Nick Andros (Henry Zaga), who cannot hear or speak, but who serves as Mother Abagail’s voice to the rest of the council and has a tight bond with the differently abled Tom Cullen (Brad William Henke). All of these men are given flashback segments that fill in who they were before the outbreak and inform of their motivations moving forward, while the series’ main female character, Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young), never gets a formative segment of her own.
Instead, Frannie’s exclusive purpose is to serve as a subject of male sexual interest: First as a fetish object for the Peeping Tom, aspiring writer, and town outcast Harold Lauder (Teague), who has been obsessed with Frannie since she used to babysit for him, and later as a romantic partner to Stu once they settle in Boulder. Frannie is a central character whose choices often mold the reactions of others, and she is one of the first individuals shown to be dreaming of Mother Abagail. But how cordoned off she feels from the main narrative, and the fuzziness of her overall identity, both do “The Stand” a disservice, exemplifying how the show mismanages its attention. The series’ first couple of hours, premiere “The End” and second episode “Pocket Savior,” build an exquisite amount of tension: The shifting locations capture the permeation of the outbreak; each cough and sniffle portends upcoming doom; and the series’ makeup department should be commended for making the physical effects of “Captain Trips” very, very gross. But after those initial world-building episodes, “The Stand” never feels dirty enough—neither in its presentation of the physical and emotional impact of all this sickness, loss, and death, nor in its consideration of the lure of Flagg’s totalitarianism-as-hedonism rule in his New Vegas bacchanalia. The worst thing going on at New Vegas seems to be a lot of gladiator-style warfare and orgies, both involving willing participants, and after the “Game of Thrones” era, viewers might wonder: So what?
That tentative quality and uneven storytelling is in spite of the cast, the most compelling reason to watch “The Stand.” The series’ messaging about good and evil might be skimpy, but most every actor is doing good work. Marsden and Teague highlight the difference between a Good Man and a Nice Guy, with the latter doing a particularly creepy Tom Cruise impression. Zaga’s flexible expressiveness serves his character well, and contrasts satisfyingly with Goldberg’s no-nonsense energy. Irene Bedard is a delight every time she appears onscreen as Mother Abagail’s fierce protector Ray Brentner (a change from King’s original character Ralph). (One of the series’ worst choices, though, is in not changing King’s material enough: the schizophrenic Trashcan Man from King’s novel is played with alarming cliché by Ezra Miller.)
But Skarsgård is the standout here. The series’ best moment in its first six episodes is Flagg’s silent beating of a man in a glass elevator in his Inferno casino, the emphatic blood splatter shocking a crowd of revelers who thought they were accustomed to everything offered at Flagg’s carnival of depravity. Skarsgård’s quiet, almost regretful, delivery of “My sincere apologies to the housekeeper” when he steps off the elevator is a chilling denouement to a scene of grotesque violence. His Randall Flagg deserves a series more willing to meet his menace than “The Stand.”