The Stand (2020) Episode 1 Review

CBS All Access

The Stand is one of Stephen King’s crowning achievements as an author. Combining the King’s love of the supernatural with the terrifying mundanity of a global pandemic, The Stand still has the power to terrify readers, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic showed how precarious society really is to face something like the super-flu “Captain Tripps” found in the novel. Unfortunately, the most recent adaptation of the novel, the limited series The Stand (2020) (produced by CBS and available on Paramount Plus) is not what I would call a worthy version of the source material.

Adapting a novel, particularly one as large as the uncut version of The Stand (which to this day is still King’s largest single novel), is never an easy task. The biggest reason for my dislike of the new miniseries is how the producers and writers decided to structure the limited series. A secondary reason for my disdain is the miscasting of the lead roles (with some notable exceptions). There was a great amount of potential for this new miniseries, particularly due to the talent involved, but it feels like a squandered opportunity.

Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the first episode of The Stand (2020).

The first episode of the new miniseries, titled “The End”, uses a flashback-heavy narrative structure that feels disjointed. Instead of following the linear format used during the original miniseries produced by ABC, “The End” starts us off well into the story in the Boulder Free Zone. The main focus of the first episode is on two characters: Harold Lauder (played by Owen Teague) and Stu Redmen (played by James Marsden). We are then shown flashbacks of the two characters during the early days of the Captain Trips outbreak.

The flashback method grounds the momentum of the story to a halt, unfortunately. Additionally, James Marsden tries his best during his portrayal of Stu Redman but the fact that he doesn’t even bother with even a modest Texan accent detracts from his performance. Marsden turns in an often-understated performance, trying for the everyman vibe that Stu possesses in the novel. He just can’t quite bring that part of the performance across, sadly. In the scenes we are shown, Stu can barely manage anything more than stilted grunts when he should be showing anger.

On the flip side, we have Owen Teague as the nerdy incel Harold Lauder. Our first introduction to Harold is when he’s spying on Fran Goldsmith (portrayed by Odessa Young). To say this increases the creepy factor is an understatement. In the original novel, Harold is written as overweight, acne-ridden, and slovenly. He puts on a pompous attitude to hide his deep-seeded insecurities. Teague’s performance is quite good, making the audience vacillate between finding Harold unbearably creepy and potentially sympathetic.

However, due to the structure of the episode, any sympathy is quickly dashed during Harold’s voiceover narration. We find out just how far down the rabbit hold Harold has gone as he begins plotting the demise of Stu Redman and Fran Goldsmith. The reason this structure doesn’t work is because we as the audience haven’t been given enough time and context to feel one way or the other about Harold’s descent into darkness. Had the show used a linear structure rather than the flashback narrative, we would have all the information laid before us about why Harold holds such enmity for Fran and Stu.

The biggest kick in the teeth for the audience is that so little of the fall of society is shown. In the original miniseries, much of the first episode is devoted to showing the collapse of the American society (something the book examines greatly with small stories and snippets). We’re told, rather than shown, the effects of Captain Trips on the world at large. The only time the horrors of the superflu are really shown is when it directly impacts the focus characters of the episode. While this shows the horrors these characters face, it limits the scope of the story, which is part of the overall horror of The Stand.

The closing moments of the first episode also takes us all the way back to the beginning of the outbreak, which was another poor choice. While it does give us our first look at Alexander Skarsgard as Randall Flagg (the big bad of the series), putting Campion’s escape at the end doesn’t really work. Instead, the series should have taken a page from the original miniseries and started with Campion’s escape. Then, at the end of the episode, we could go back to that moment and reveal that Flagg was responsible for causing the outbreak and letting Campion out to spread Captain Tripps to the rest of the world. Using a narrative structure like that would have increased the impact of the ultimate reveal that Flagg was responsible for the outbreak in the first place.

I will admit that I am biased toward the original miniseries released in the 1990s, even with its obvious flaws. The Stand (1994) was one of the first Stephen King adaptations I was allowed to watch. This was due in no small part to it being broadcast on ABC, so the content was safer for younger viewers.Part of me wanted to enjoy this new version, particularly because of its increased relevancy in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. But I simply wasn’t able to overlook the flaws in both casting and structure to really dig the new version of The Stand.

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