Trippin' the Captain Fantastic

The Stand (2020)

Growing up, I loved the books by Stephen King. He writes a lot of novels about children falling into danger and then finding a way to defeat the monsters -- Silver Bullet, It, and Dreamcatcher among them. I never did read It at the time (doubt I ever will), but one of his biggest tomes was one of the first books from him I ever tackled: The Stand, in its uncut and unabridged version published after the original edition had become a huge success.

I rather liked The Stand, or at least the first half of it. I already had a love for zombie films (which I carry on today, reviewing zombies movies over on The Inverted Dungeon), and that naturally also leads to a fascination with plague and apocalypse films. People catching a disease, the world falling apart, and then the dregs of humanity have to rebuild what little civilization they can while beating back the dangers left in the outside world? Sign me up!

The issue I have with the novel is that the good bits, as I see them, all come in the first half of the story. After that point, the novel devolves into the standard Stephen King fare: right and wrong, good and evil, God and the Devil. Setting out heroes against a single antagonist -- Randall Flagg -- ends up feeling reductive for the story that came before. I'm sure it was Stephen King trying to do his normal fare, to have a monster the heroes can defeat after crafting such a good "end of the world" scenario, but the back half of the novel simply never lived up to the promise of the first half. By giving us a demon to fight, and kill, the novel felt less than the sum of its parts.

There have been two adaptations of the novel, and in my opinion both of them have come up short. The first version was back in 1994 (which, hell, was over 25 years ago), and for good and ill, that version told a fairly faithful recreation of the novel. It had decent B-list star, cheap but effective production values, and managed to get through a massive tome of a novel (upwards of 1,200 pages) in six-ish hours. While I still think the back-half of the story is lacking, the stars at least managed to make the basic story a tad more palatable. This new version, the 2020, ten-episode mini-series, doesn't get the same level of credit or benefit. It has bigger stars, a bigger budget, and somehow manages to fall even flatter in the process.

The first sin this new version of the story commits is that it skips over much of the actual "good stuff". The part I liked about the original story was seeing the steady fall of man from their own hubris (a disease the American government engineered that got out and killed 99% of the world's population). This new version gives us a few scenes of that, but it's scattered throughout the first couple of episodes, with much of the story in the front half of the season taking place after the outbreak and fall of civilization. Any suspense over who might live and who might die is ruined by us seeing versions of them in the aftermath, and later, still alive and working towards the future.

Moments like these cut the suspense out from under the story. There's now worry about if characters will survive whatever ordeal they're about to face when we've already seen a future version of them. Sure, most of the characters that we focus on are likely to be survivors of the disease, but there's more to worry about than just the super-flu. IN a zombie apocalypse it's the other humans, more than the zombies, that cause the real drama, but this series like to cut past all that, thinking that doing a time-jumping, Quentin Taratino-style, out of order story is the better way to tell these events. It's not.

In the process of jumping around like this, the series also ends up betraying characters. It does focus enough on any of our heroes and villains, spending the time needed to develop their stories and make us care. We simply bounce from a point where they're first meeting, to a time when some of them are together in relationships, and the show assumes that because we see them together we'll understand why they got together. That's not how you build characters, or relationships, and we end up spending most of our time wondering why these two people with no chemistry are hanging around each other. This happens a lot, with both the heroes and the villains, and it sucks.

Hell, the villains get short shrift in this version of the series, even more than in the original work. At least in the novel we spent a bit of time with each character, good or bad, so we could understand them (in their own weird ways). But by jumping around like a kid hopped up on sugar, the show also undercuts the villains. Each villain is defined by a single tick or verbal style, with the actors left to do all the work of investing the characters with actual depths because the story doesn't provide any of it. We see people like the Trash Can Man, the Rat Woman, and others, but we never really learn about them so we don't understand where they're coming from.

This becomes a real issue in the last couple of episodes of the series when some of our good guys (who live in Boulder, CO, for reasons that aren't that well explained in this version of the series -- a magical black lady, played by Whoopi Goldberg, lives there and while Whoopi is cool, I dunno if I'd go to Colorado for her) walk to Vegas, the stronghold of the bad guys, to make their Stand and show that the power of God can defeat evil. But the series rushes all this too, and it's not the heroism of the good guys that defeats the bad guys, or turns their hearts, or anything. God just reaches down and smites everyone... so why did our heroes have to go there and sacrifice themselves?

You might notice that I haven't actually mentioned any of the good guys by name. The reason is that the series fails so hard at making any of them interesting or getting them to stand out that I didn't care about them. This version of the series has more time to tell its tale and yet speeds through all the important bits so quickly that nothing much of consequence ever feels like it happens. I don't care about Stu Redman (James Marsden) or Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young) or their relationship or the fact that her friend (who she really doesn't care that much about), Harold Lauder (Owen Teague), tries to betray everyone. None of it lands because none of the characters matter to me. We see blips of their lives but nothing of consequence.

And then we get to the last episode, which is a coda that was written by King himself, and his son, and stitched on to the end of the series and, wow, it adds nothing. It's just Stu and Frannie taking a road trip, she almost dies after falling in a well, and the magical black lady save them again. But it doesn't actually elucidate anything about the characters we didn't already (barely) know. It's just a series of events that happen and then everyone goes back to their lives. It's a thing that exists, which is kind of how I feel about the whole of this series.

In the moment, watching from episode to episode, the show was fine, but it certainly felt like as the series progressed it quickly started to run out of steam. I have to blame that on the fact that it rushed to get past the first half of the novel (for whatever reason) so it could focus on the war between good and evil. But then, in the back half, it didn't know how to tell that tale or make it convincing. It just exists, a very handsomely filmed series with absolutely nothing going on beneath the surface and a total waste of time and effort.

In this year, with a pandemic going on, you'd think the producers could have made a show like The Stand stick and resonate. Instead, CBS totally whiffed this one, making something that won't even remain half as memorable at the six-hour series from 25 years ago.