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Years into the COVID-19 pandemic, “Station Eleven” suggests we got off easy.

Both the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel and its limited-series adaptation on HBO Max tell the story of a viral plague that decimates the world’s population too quickly for any response. Novel and TV show alike depict both the first moments of global spread and the state of things 20 years on, in a hardscrabble world where humanity’s remnants seek moments of poetry.

Admirers of the timeline-hopping book will be pleased to know that this adaptation, created by Patrick Somerville, attempts to keep Mandel’s style alive. In the main story, an actor named Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), who’d lived through the beginning of the flu crisis as a child (played in flashback by Matilda Lawler), journeys the Midwest with her performance troupe, the Traveling Symphony. That series-long arc is studded with flashbacks to folks tied, closely or loosely, to Kirsten; the Symphony’s performances maintain a link to the past, pushing away for a moment the narrowness and constraint of life after plague.

The show is strikingly directed by helmers including Hiro Murai, Jeremy Podeswa, Helen Shaver, and Lucy Tcherniak, with compositions evoking the wideness of a feral American landscape or the chill of an abandoned airport. Davis is an able lead, and I was taken with Danielle Deadwyler as Miranda, a supply chain expert (yes, really) who encounters, in the early days of cataclysm, a rare situation that she cannot master.

What’s missing, though, is narrative control — one of Mandel’s great gifts as a novelist. Chunkily paced, the flashbacks can appear random, and viewers coming in cold are likely to wonder why we’re spending time with, say, Gael García Bernal’s vain-actor character. Yes, he plays a role in Kirsten’s story (and Miranda’s, for that matter), but this “Station Eleven” struggles at times to draw meaning out of simple proximity. A sense of uncertainty about how to make the sweeping novel the right size for TV haunts the lengthy series, and some elisions do harm. A fiction within the series — a comic book that gives “Station Eleven” its title — is only fleetingly drawn, and its significance doesn’t fully land.

For all this, “Station Eleven” conjures its mood well: Existence after the world falls away is conveyed as both perilous and painfully boring. And although these characters have had a far worse pandemic experience than we have, there’s reason for viewers in our divided times to watch and feel a sort of envy. Working together, the Symphony finds a strange joy in living through the end times. The depiction of theatrical performance here is moving — suggesting a power in connection, through storytelling, that sustains under the worst of circumstances. That spirit shines through a flawed but bighearted adaptation.

“Station Eleven” debuts on HBO Max on Thursday, Dec. 16. 

‘Station Eleven’ Is a Thrilling but Oddly Paced Adaptation: TV Review

HBO Max. Ten episodes (all screened for review).

  • Production: Executive producers: Patrick Somerville, Scott Steindorff, Scott Delman, Dylan Russell, Jessica Rhoades, Hiro Murai, Jeremy Podeswa, and Nate Matteson.
  • Crew:
  • Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Himesh Patel, Daniel Zovatto , David Wilmot, Matilda Lawler, Philippine Velge, Nabhaan Rizwan, Lori Petty, Gael García Bernal, Danielle Deadwyler.
  • Music By: