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'The Stand' is relevant and well-made, but sometimes [Captain] Trips over its own aspirations, say critics

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Dec 15, 2020, 9:39 AM EST (Updated)

Wash your hands and don that face mask because CBS All Access is on the verge of premiering its modern adaptation The Stand later this week. Based on the classic novel by Stephen King, the miniseries is more relevant than ever, as it begins with the release of a new virus that nearly wipes out all of humanity.

That may hit too close to home for many of us these days, but no one could have guessed that a global outbreak of a deadly pathogen would coincide with the show's release. Showrunner Benjamin Cavell (Justified, Sneaky Pete) will tell you The Stand isn't really about a pandemic, but it's kind of hard to separate the age of Captain Trips from the age of COVID-19.

In any case, reviews are now coming online for the updated take on King's Lord of the Rings-inspired depiction of good vs. evil in a post-apocalyptic world. How does it stack up? According to Variety's Roxana Hadadi, Cavell applies "a strangely sanitized sheen to the central threat of elemental evil, resulting in a miniseries that feels simultaneously over-detailed and underdeveloped. That conflicted quality makes the danger faced by the community serving as humanity's last stand curiously subdued, and The Stand struggles to distinguish itself outside of its exceptional casting choices."

Those "exceptional casting choices" come in the form of an A-list ensemble that includes James Marsden, Amber Heard, Greg Kinnear, Odessa Young, Henry Zaga, Whoopi Goldberg, Jovan Adepo, Owen Teague, Heather Graham, Alexander Skarsgård, Nat Wolff, and Ezra Miller. When billions are wiped out by the novel strain of influenza, two factions of humanity will vie for control. The "good" side is led by the prophetic Mother Abigail (Goldberg), while the "evil" side is overseen by the magic-using Randall Flagg (Skarsgård).

Writing for Collider, Vinnie Mancuso describes Skarsgård's character as "the real horrific highlight" and praises the way the miniseries leans into the actor's "sheer tallness, having the actor often crouch or stoops into the shot. His line delivery, though, is suitably bizarre, the sound of a devil whispering in someone's ear."

As for Mother Abigail Freemantle, a 100-year-old+ woman who can commune with God, "Goldberg brings humanity and humor to a character who can read as a bit of a cliché on the page and Skarsgård's appropriately creepy in his initially fleeting appearances," says Keith Phipps of TV Guide in their 3/5 review. They continue: "The series' generous budget keeps its post-apocalyptic America convincing and its tense moments deliver the scares. If these first four episodes offer little in the way of unforgettable moments, they're always intriguing enough to keep curiosity burning about what will happen next."

Mancuso also states that Cavell and executive producer/director Josh Boone (The New Mutants) falls short as a result of its own ambition by employing non-linear storytelling in an effort to cover the world before and after the government-created super-flu killed off billions of people. "It gamely attempts to cover both parts, all at once — employing a Lost-like flashback structure to do so — but ends up diluting two sides of the same apocalypse," adds the Collider review. "There's tension here, along with a stellar cast and more than a few genuine jolts, but it's all packed into a frame too crowded for any one thing to land."

Joshua Sargent of the San Francisco Chronicle actually posits that The Stand can act as a source of comfort in these trying times: "From the opening scenes, we see that life after the pandemic is possible. Communities can be rebuilt. Life goes on, even if it has to trudge. Good is quieter than Evil, but that's because it's more patient. Evil thrashes and throws tantrums, but it never thinks too far ahead. This might be an unexpected source of comfort, but there are worse thoughts to have in your head this winter."

Since King's novel is over 1,000 pages long, a lot of stuff had to be cut, which ends up being a detriment to characters like Trashcan Man (Miller), Larry Underwood (Adepo), and Nadine Cross (Heard), explains Nicole Drum of ComicBook.com. "There are also some spots in which the overall thrust of the story feels just a little bloated, despite the careful and skilled ways the novel's often-rambling prose has been trimmed but those are surprisingly few and far between in the series."

"The correct way to adapt The Stand was almost certainly as a three-season, 30-episode series — but the introduction of new confusion is a problem," writes Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter. "Nobody who hasn't read the book is going to be able to make an iota of sense out of Frannie's pregnancy, out of Larry odd interlude with a woman named Rita (Heather Graham) or the logic in somebody volunteering Tom for a key mission after the character has been introduced in literally only one prior scene."

Fienberg concludes:  "The show has little to say about how we're living today. I'll watch the last three episodes, especially to see the new coda written by King himself, but too much of this new attempt to tackle The Stand is full of coughing and mucous, signifying nothing."

The new miniseries is comprised of nine episodes, the first of which premieres on CBS All Access this coming Thursday, Dec. 17.