Belle’s Review of The Stand

Can always count on something about America to be hopelessly reductive.

The Stand is a TV miniseries based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name. I haven’t read the novel, and based on having seen the miniseries, I will not be doing that.

This review is going to have spoilers for the 2020 miniseries The Stand and presumably also the book and the other miniseries that happened in the 90s. They do all apparently have different endings, but honestly I don’t plan to talk about the ending anyway and I assume they have similar middles.

The premise of The Stand is that a viral pandemic with a stupid name has spread across the Earth and killed nearly everyone but for the tiny minority of people who were immune to it. Those who have survived are all either purely good people who only want to do good things, who live in a suburban American town and are working to rebuild America and all work for Whoopi Goldberg; or evil people who only want to do evil things, who live in a constant gladiatorial murder orgy in Las Vegas and all work for Alexander Skarsgård. The two groups of people fight and good triumphs over evil in a profoundly boring and predictable manner.

It’s hard to pinpoint the biggest problem with The Stand, but I suspect the fault mostly lies in the writing. It feels at every turn like the writers carefully considered their options and then took the most generic possible route with plot and characterization. The characters are all boilerplate and uninteresting and the plot plods along exactly as you’d expect, albeit at half the speed. The show is broken in half with some of the scenes taking place in the “current” period and some of them showing how various characters survived the pandemic and got to where they were going. Unfortunately, the flashbacks, while a cool idea, end up just being tedious because we already know where the characters are going to end up, so there’s no tension in them at all. It would have been much better to have started with the flashbacks and then had the second half of the show be the “current” time, which I’m told is what the book does. Why they chose this format when the book isn’t written this way is baffling, especially when considering adaptations of King’s other doorstopper, It, which does have that structure and its adaptations don’t, to their detriment. It’s almost like someone somewhere at some time decided that in all adaptations of Stephen King they will mess with whatever he very intentionally did, which is why the vast majority of them are bad.

It’s really important to talk about representation in this show, especially of disability but I’m going to start with just a few comments about race and gender. One character was gender-flipped to be a woman in the adaptation, but she’s the least relevant character in the show and has basically no dialogue, so not exactly the bravest move there. The other female characters are all defined by their femininity and mostly their reproductive ability, which I’d be curious to know how much of that is a show issue and how much is a Stephen King issue, because he does tend to struggle with female characters. The major female character in the show is however Whoopi Goldberg, a magical Black woman who has basically no powers because the showrunners wanted to tone down her status as the Magical Black Woman stereotype. But she still is that, and now she’s also useless, and the show acts like she isn’t, which is just clumsy writing, honestly.

Representationally, disability is the biggest thing that needs discussing here. The show has several disabled characters and only one of them is handled particularly well. The character of Nick is a Deaf bodyguard who is played by a hearing actor. In his flashbacks, Alexander Skarsgård shows him a mystical vision where he tells him he can hear and speak, and this is clearly evil because Alexander Skarsgård is the villain and he’s erasing Nick’s disability. But then ten minutes later Whoopi Goldberg does the same thing and this is somehow a miracle instead of an atrocity. Apparently they didn’t even audition any Deaf actors for this role, and Henry Zaga is fine except that he clearly doesn’t know sign language (neither do any of the other characters), but he shouldn’t have been cast. The narrative frequently forgets that he’s Deaf and has people signing at him when his back is turned. Also he can magically read lips perfectly, like all Deaf people on television. The show also has Joe, a mute boy who doesn’t talk because of trauma incurred in the apocalypse. He’s mostly fine, but his psychic powers let the writers stray into supercrip territory with him a little; he doesn’t talk but he knows everything! It sounds like good representation until you think about what it does to real people.

The show also features a character named Tom, a developmentally disabled adult played by an able-minded actor. Great care was taken by the actors to portray this character well, because in the book he’s described as a “man-child” and with a variety of other derogatory terms by King, and they wanted to update that. Overall I genuinely believe they do a really good job with Tom’s character, and he’s a significant character in the narrative who is represented very well—the only problem I have with his narrative is the lengthy, detailed scene about halfway through the show when half the able-bodied cast gets together to discuss with great gravity whether it’s fair to send him on an important spy mission to Las Vegas because they don’t know if he’s capable of doing it. It feels really out of place when they don’t have this discussion about the old woman or the rape victim they choose to send to the devil’s house and are only considered about the disabled person. It’s a reasonable concern to have, obviously, but it stands out for being so detailed, and it feels like the writers are trying to make the point that yes, Tom can do everything that a non-disabled person can do so this is okay, almost like there was some discomfort with the role that King gave him in the narrative that they wanted to address. But addressing it causes the problem its trying to address because it raises the question for the audience of whether this is a bad idea even though you’re supposed to believe that the good guys are all good all the time. It’s just not well handled and overall the rest of the character is (I’m not the most fond of his disability being a magical shield that prevents Alexander Skarsgård from being able to psychically locate him, but it’s not terribly done).

None of the other characters in the show are very interesting, and none of the plotlines are interesting either. Also, this is one of those American apocalypses that never once mentions what’s happened outside of America and makes you wonder if maybe the world didn’t really end and actually everyone else is just looking at America being like “man they have it rough down there.” Like, we all know that pandemics can theoretically spread around the world, so it’s presumed that everyone else is equally as fucked as America, but the utter lack of a single line of dialogue about anything that’s happened anywhere else on Earth is such an American thing to do in a post-apocalypse and it grates on me every time. But that’s just a personal pet peeve and Stephen King is an American writer and the story is clearly meant to be a specifically American apocalypse (that’s also just the Christian apocalypse played out in what is deceitfully called the Midwest), so it’s probably fine.

Honestly, the show reminded me a lot of Carnivale, a much better show about binaristic good and evil fighting it out at the end of the world in America. If you’re thinking of giving The Stand a try, I suggest passing on it, saving money on the Prime subscription, and watching Carnivale instead.

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