(Head Geek’s note: This review is courtesy of friend of the Geekery, ProjectBlue.)
The Stephen King pop culture resurgence continues with the 2020 adaptation of The Stand for CBS All Access. In theory, it seemed like a good match. CBS has been putting a good amount of effort into their fledgling streamer and using high profile geek-cred properties like Star Trek and Twilight Zone. In execution? Well…
So out front, ProjectBlue? It’s a reference to one of the names used for the strain of biological weapon that gets out in the book. Project Blue is the government name for the program that created the strain of flu that takes out well over 90% of the world’s population. So, 2020 on the biggest syringe of steroids you can find. The Stand remains one of my top 3 King stories of all time. This, IT (want more IT takes? IT(2017), IT 2 (2019)), and The Dark Tower series keep flip flopping in ranking depending on mood and which one I re-read last. So I’ll always keep an eye out any time the property is being talked about.
For quite a while, it was considered as a feature film with Matthew McConaughey rumored for Randall Flagg. Sounds great on paper, right? Check out McConaughey as Flagg in 2017’s The Dark Tower for a rough example of being careful what you wish for!
Looking at this iteration, I’m really torn on how to judge it. First off? This is episode 1 of 9, so they may just be getting warmed up and as many streaming networks have shown, many shows don’t find their footing until far into their season run. Second? There should be some flexibility for a creator to put their own stamp on the work. That it won’t follow exactly the book or the 1994 ABC mini-series is understood, so there is some wiggle room there.
One way to look at this: how would someone coming in blind enjoy the show? And that’s the first problem area with The Stand (2020). Going in with maybe just the trailer or vague generalization of “This is what happens when a plague takes out most of the world,” this version starts more than mid-way through the book’s narrative, past the plague, past the travel west, past the re-establishing of civilization and with one of the main characters, Harold Lauder, working on a body clean up crew.
For a quick recap of what became a 1,152-page book: The Stand is a tale of a genetically modified flu virus that escapes a military base. From there, you track how the plague quickly spreads across the country, (with glimpses of its spread worldwide). The story follows a set of survivors, both good and bad, that end up meeting up at various points. There are mystical elements of good and evil as well with both sides weighing heavily on the survivors and which side they plan to be on as civilization slowly rebounds. The story ends in a final stand between the factions, and much like most of King’s stories, even a happy ending has heavy costs.
Time jumps are rampant in the hour-long premiere episode. At times there are voice-over-flash-forwards within flash-forwards then abrupt flashbacks. They actually end the episode where the book began, with the virus getting out of the military base where it was housed.
One wonder I had while watching was if this abrupt cutting style was the result of COVID and the fear focusing too much on the sickness would hit too close to home. Reading further on the show after Episode 1, though, and it appears this is not the case and they always intended this to be their take on the story. It’s a shame, because at least there would be a logic to that choice if they left a bunch of the early “plague sets in” on the cutting room floor.
The time jumps themselves aren’t really a detriment if you’ve read the book or watched the 1994 miniseries, but that’s with an expectation that it will track pretty closely to those versions. Writer/Director Josh Boone and creator Stephen King have said they’ve put new wrinkles on the story, though, and even added a new ending to pump up Frannie Goldsmith’s story. Fran was one of the focal points of the original book, serving as the heart of the survivors, often trying to be their moral compass. Through episode 1, this Fran is not that.
Which leads to a second problem with the story: much of the pre-release publicity has had to do with making Frannie’s character stronger, giving her more agency. In this debut, she’s a catty, at times mean head case who ends up needing to be saved from a suicide attempt by Harold. Another big plot point is Fran’s pregnancy; her character starts the book coming to grips with being “preggers.” The baby’s father is a blip on the radar, quickly leaving the story, but the angst over whether her baby would be immune to the virus drove much of her character motivation.
Here, they skip over any mention of her pregnancy other than a short flashback moment where she looks to tell her father. Though the way it’s filmed, unless you’re book savvy, you could easily miss it. A flash-forward later, Fran’s happily pregnant and living a life of bliss with Stu. Again, maybe this is a change and Stu’s the father, but by constantly time shifting, it’s hard to tell and again, I’d say someone blind to the source, would be confused at best.
Harold here, by throwing in all the time jumps, loses the tragic hero vibe he may have had in the book and comes off more like a school-shooter-in-training. Let’s not mistake Book-Harold as a good guy, but by slowly working through who he was over 800 pages in the original book (or 1,100 pages in the uncut version), you sympathize with the tragic path he goes down. Here, in the course of one hour, all you get is a creepy psychopath, complete with a jerk-off session while listening to news clips of the plague taking hold. For a Game of Thrones character comparison, I always saw Harold more of a Theon Greyjoy, where, yeah, he does stupid shit but you keep hoping he gets it right. Through episode 1, Harold is pure Ramsay Snow, no redemption and leaves you waiting for his untimely end. This gets us back to a big issue the series seems to be facing: If they’re tracking the original fairly closely, you just took off the playing field a good amount of character development.
Other character changes here are expected based on casting. Frannie in the book and The Stand (1994) was college-aged and young. Here, Frannie comes off older – late 20s – which is weird as the actress, Odessa Young is only 22. The on-screen age up though does make some sense as her love interest, Stu Redman’s portrayer, James Marsden is 47.
One area I wish they did change was Mother Abigail, a semi-mystical figure from the book that seemingly has a direct line with a higher power and serves as a divining rod of the good survivors. Problem for film: Mother Abigail is 108 years old. Casting Whoopie Goldberg is a strong choice, but in a world where Boone could have changed anything, I would have just had Whoopie play it at her current age. Aging up and giving Goldberg an old, motherly voice was jarring in episode 1. Maybe it will grow on me as her part gets bigger in episodes to come.
The other key player introduced? The Walkin’ Dude himself, Randall Flagg. Flagg became a huge source of evil in King’s Shared Universe, appearing in multiple books, including a sizable chunk in The Dark Tower. Here, there’s plenty of time to see what Alexander Skarsgård can do with the part, as Flagg was merely in the shadows. His first main introduction, though, at an outdoor amphitheater trying to coax Harold to the darkside? Laughably bad as Harold receives a spotlight treatment and a cheesy look of fear mixed with intrigue.
So if you’re still here, you’re probably wondering if I’ll be watching episode 2. Much like a runaway plague that can’t be stopped, they can’t get rid of me that easy. I think they have some building blocks to work with. Marsden’s Stu seems a solid choice; not Gary Oldman 1994 version good, but not bad. They still have plenty of heavy-hitter characters from the book left, especially since they barely scratched the surface on the bad side. Also? I haven’t been name dropped yet. I have to hang around to see if that happens!
Plus, I’m morbidly curious on what King’s new ending addition looks like. If the series ends up following the books closely, they have a tough road to follow from this start. If they end up changing things up to make it their own? I’d love to revisit episode 1 and see if my mood changes.
Right now? 4/10.