In 1978, Stephen King wrote The Stand, a novel in which 99.4 per cent of the human population was wiped out due to a fast-spreading viral pandemic.
Maybe that’s too triggering a plot point right at this present moment 43 years later, but if you can get pass the portentous coughing and sniffling, then there’s an ambitious story about the struggle between good and evil in it for you.
The first five episodes of The Stand, which has been adapted into a nine-part miniseries, is available now to stream on Amazon Prime Video and it’s a star-studded if tonally confused sci-fi/horror series that delivers on an often-gruesome post-apocalyptic battle for humanity’s soul.
When we say often-gruesome, we mean it. One of the physical symptoms of fatal virus “Captain Trips” right before death is a distended neck which, when prodded, oozes pus. It’s a stomach-churning sight. Of course, there’s also oozing blood.
The Stand loves to ooze, and the oozing never comes from a lovely French washed rind cheese.
Also, “Captain Trips” doesn’t seem to affect rats so if George Orwell’s nightmare rat scenario is a personal fear, the rodents in The Stand will make you dry-retch.
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With a cast that includes James Marsden, Alexander Skarsgard, Amber Heard, Odessa Young, Whoopi Goldberg and Greg Kinnear, there’s no shortage of star-power. There are even effective, memorable guest spots from the likes of J.K. Simmons, Heather Graham and Hamish Linklater.
As “Captain Trips” wipes out whole cities and towns, rotting bodies are slumped behind car wheels and diner tables while fires burn in Manhattan high-rises. The pandemic tore through people’s bodies and spread so quickly, it took less than a month to end civilisation.
Those immune to the virus are the few survivors of the devastation, including Stu (Marsden), Larry (Jovan Adepo), Frannie (Young), Glen (Kinnear) and Nick (Henry Zaga). All five of them, from different parts of the US have been seeing an old woman in vivid dreams.
Mother Abagail (Goldberg) appears in the middle of a cornfield, and calls them to Boulder, Colorado where hundreds of survivors have set up a new form of social order. Many see it as a chance to rewrite the mistakes mankind has made.
Elsewhere, another supernatural being, the dark sorcerer Randall Flagg (Skarsgard), a recurring figure from King’s fiction, is gathering others in Las Vegas. His seduction of vulnerable minds, and with demands for loyalty, will pit good versus evil.
Skarsgard’s Flagg is the big bad of the series, but he almost comes across more like a mischievous sprite than the manifestation of dark forces in what is The Stand’s most jarring tonal dissonance.
His winking happy face badge and Skarsgard’s impish smile hints at creators Josh Boone and Benjamin Cavell’s ambition for a series that is darker, more playful than the one they mounted.
If anything, the most menacing character is the odious Harold Lauder (Owen Teague) whose desire of and self-deluded entitlement to Frannie is far more repugnant than a demonic being whose raison d’etre just seems to be evil for evil’s sake.
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The transitions between earnest drama and pure horror to black comedy feels laboured or even neglected, never having created the tonal bridge necessary. It’s where The Stand falls over the most significantly.
The other flaw – depending on your own preferences – is the series is slow-moving. It spends the bulk of the early episodes on flashbacks of how each major character has landed where they did. This is great for character-building, but it does take away from the momentum of the narrative.
That’s not a dealbreaker if you’re the patient type but if you’re not, there’s a good chance you won’t even get to the back half of the series.
The Stand is a mixed bag. While it feels as if its pandemic-initiated storyline might hew too closely to our own reality, it’s actually removed enough to not feel like you’re watching some prophetic documentary about what’s next.
And there’s enough in it – characters you can become invested in – to sustain those who like some momentary jolts that won’t ruin your dinner too much.
But with its many subplots, some more compelling than others, it’s an uneven series that’s not so much a must-watch as a can-watch.
The Stand is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video
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