‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ is absent in CBS All Access reboot of Stephen King’s apocalypse saga. So is linear narrative.
When execs at CBS announced, way back in the before times of 2018, that they had an updated version of Stephen King’s The Stand in the works for their streaming service, I felt myself getting excited. The last TV version aired in 1994 and seems almost comically dated at this point, and King published the novel itself more than forty years ago. Many King fans see the story as one of the finest of his early work, and perhaps his entire catalogue. So surely, the time for a redux was appropriate.
Well, I think it’s safe to say that the suits at CBS didn’t anticipate how close to the bone King’s epic might just cut in 2020 and early 2021. The Stand is story about how a pandemic ravages the planet, resulting in the breakdown of society and the ultimate battle between good and evil. But that seems less like fantasy/horror these days than a terrifyingly logical extension of what we experience when we’re doom-scrolling while eating takeout in our sweatpants in the attempt to avoid all human contact for the tenth month straight. Watching The Stand in early 2021 almost comes across as a terrifying documentary broadcast from our future. Would anyone, in this day and age, want to endure that instead of starting another marathon of Friends for the seventeenth time?
As a lifelong King stan, I couldn’t help myself. Bring on the carnage, I thought, let loose the riders of the apocalypse and let’s hope this new adaptation can do the source material justice. Maybe what we really need right now is a big, juicy epic from the master of horror.
After Captain Trips
For those unfamiliar with the story, The Stand tells of a virus known as “Captain Trips” that results in the death of approximately 99 percent of the global population. After the initial horrors of the disease play out, the survivors, at least in the United States, find themselves bifurcated into two camps, one following the kindly and pious 108 year-old Mother Abigail, and others drawn to the forces of darkness by Randall Flagg, a demonic entity in a Canadian tuxedo. In the end, of course, good will battle evil, presumably for control over what’s left of the world. It’s a long, sprawling yarn that follows numerous characters on both sides as they respectively descend into evil and rise above it, and even though the novel is a beastly doorstop of a thing, it’s still a lot of fun to sink into.
The trick, of course, lies in how to deftly adapt this thing for the screen. The 1994 version was an enjoyable yarn, and while the last chapter looks hilariously cheesy more than two decades on, there’s still a lot to admire there. Among other things, it gave us the return of two brat pack members, Molly Ringwald and Rob Lowe, a pitch perfect Gary Sinise as the story’s everyman protagonist, Stu Redman, and the best use of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” on a television screen until Will Farrell and his cowbell appropriated it.
In 2021, The Stand is considerably darker and more self-serious. CBS All Access doesn’t have to deal with pesky things like network censors and millions of primetime viewers, and clearly enjoys the freedom to be as gruesome and profane as it wants. In 1994, it was shocking just to depict corpses with their eyes open. In this version, the camera lingers on a raven as it greedily plucks out a dead police horse’s gooey eyeball for a mid-afternoon snack, and the characters freely drop F-bombs galore. Sure, it makes the story seem a little more contemporary, but it doesn’t necessarily make it better. The Stand has always been more about the characters, their relationships with one another, and how they either grow to fight the good fight or fall prey to the enticements of the charmingly sinister “Walking Dude.”
To that end, casting of this adaptation is mostly solid, with a few standouts. Alexander Skarsgard is a great choice for Flagg, though it’s disappointing that four episodes in we haven’t seen very much of him. I’m just grateful they let him keep that all-jeans ensemble, although the absolutely epic mullet sported by Jamey Sheridan in the 90s miniseries landed on the cutting room floor here, much to my chagrin. Jovan Adepo is spot-on as a race-swapped version Larry Underwood, here sporting big Gary Clark Jr. energy as the almost-famous rock star, and Owen Teague just oozes creepy, desperate incel vibes as Harold Lauder, perhaps the most odious character in the entire story.
Similarly, Odessa Young is a great choice for pregnant teen Frannie Goldsmith. I also particularly loved seeing Heather Graham as Rita Blakemoor, a short-lived but standout character sadly cut from the 90s version, a beautiful and wealthy but depressed woman who illustrates the mental health perils of surviving the apocalypse.
As for our everyman, Stu Redman, I’m sorry, but James Marsden is just too distractingly handsome here, and he also lacks any semblance of an East Texas accent. My grandfather was from Ft. Worth and I know damned well what that should sound like. The other characters even jibe him for having an accent in episode 4, and I couldn’t help but chuckle. In that part of the country, words like “lamp” should contain at least two syllables.
Problematic casting and even-more-problematic narrative structure
But casting a Yankee as a Southerner is the least of the problems this adaptation faces. Historically, the source material is well known for insensitive portrayals of the mentally disabled, the deaf, and, in true Stephen King fashion, a whopper of a “magical negro” issue with Mother Abigail. This is nothing new for King, whose work features mystical black figures like John Coffey in The Green Mile, but in 2021 it feels noticeably cringeworthy to see it on screen, even when played by the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, who inhabits the same sturdy kindness as she did in her role as the Starship Enterprise’s sagacious bartender, Guinan.
More uncomfortable still is the depiction of Tom Cullen, played here by Brad William Henke, a developmentally disabled character who, true to the book, says things like “Oh, LAWS!” Yes, it’s faithful to the original story, but I could feel myself sinking with deep discomfort into my sofa every time he spelled a different word “M-O-O-N.” The producers (including King’s son, Owen King) would have made a magnificent impact by casting a disabled actor for the role, and it’s hard to reason why they didn’t. It’s a shame, really. Maybe they’ll do better with the depiction of “The Trashcan Man,” a mentally ill pyromaniac whose story is pivotal to the narrative, who this version has yet to introduce. One can only hope.
The biggest problem of all with The Stand 2020, however (other than being on CBS All Access, which has a subscribership of approximately 37 people, myself included) is time. For some reason I can’t puzzle out, the creative team decided to tell the tale non-linearly, skipping around willy nilly between the past and the present. Having read the novel and recently revisited another adaptation, I didn’t have a huge problem following the narrative, but with so many characters, I can only imagine how confusing it must be for those unfamiliar with the story.
Also, it’s a wasted opportunity. One of the best parts of any apocalypse narrative is watching the end of the world unfold and seeing how characters react and adjust to the new landscape. We get bits and pieces of it here and there, but this version of The Stand always disrupts itself with a cutaway to another past or another present.
So far, this adaptation of The Stand is hit or miss, though mostly miss. I don’t know if I just have dystopia fatigue in 2021, or if the writers’ decision to skip around in time like Billy Pilgrim keeps me from getting fully invested in this version, but I’m not there yet. We’re less than halfway through the show’s run, and perhaps it will pick up more steam as we meet more characters and edge towards the big narrative showdown. When that happens, I’ll be most eager to see how the new adaptation decides to treat the depiction of pure evil. Will we get laughably lurid monsters, as in the 90s version? Or will the writers decide for something a little more cerebral and understated. Personally, I hope they go big. And that they bring back the spectacular mullet of doom.
Ultimately, the one thing about this show that seriously broke my willing suspension of disbelief is its depiction of life during a pandemic. We don’t see a single person hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer, furiously disinfecting their groceries, coping by baking endless loaves of sourdough bread or binge-watching Tiger King. I mean hey, I’m willing to accept a demonic entity ushering in the apocalypse by helping unleash a superflu, and people sharing the same dreams about a biblical faceoff between the powers of good versus the powers of evil, but nobody getting booted out of a Wal-Mart kicking and screaming because they refused to wear a mask? No boring Zoom meetings or celebrities streaming feel-good sing-alongs from their antiseptic mansions?
I guess that’s one side of the end-times that even Stephen King himself couldn’t write.