'The Stand' Early Buzz: The CBS All Access Stephen King Adaptation Gets Mixed Results

Director Mick Garris adapted Stephen King's post-apocalyptic tome The Stand into a TV mini-series back in 1994, but now The New Mutants director (and noted King fanatic) Josh Boone has taken a crack at it for CBS All Access. The nine-episode limited series premieres on that platform this week, and we've rounded up some early reactions from critics who have seen the first several episodes. Read the highlights below to get a sense of whether this is a show you want to check out during this holiday season.

Before we get into the reactions, here's the latest trailer for the series and its official description:

Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King, CBS All Access's The Stand stars Whoopi Goldberg, Alexander Skarsgård, James Marsden, Odessa Young, Jovan Adepo, and many more. The limited event series will also feature an all-new coda written by Stephen King.

Rolling Stone's Alan Sepinwall is mixed-to-negative in his review, specifically calling out the pilot's odd decision to alter the structure of King's novel:

In some ways, [this version of The Stand is] an improvement on the ABC version, thanks to several strong lead performances (particularly Alexander Skarsgård as the Devil-ish villain, Randall Flagg, and James Marsden in his most convincing aw-shucks, All-American mode as Stu) and advances in digital effects and makeup that allow for a more believable end of the world than was possible to show a quarter-century ago.

But this new Stand is troubling from the start — or, rather, from where it starts. Because for some baffling reason, this new version opts to begin in the middle.

From all accounts, King's 1978 book has crackerjack pacing that hooks you from the start and races along, introducing its roster of characters and setting the stage for a clash between good and evil that would serve as an inspiration for untold movies and TV shows (including Lost, the showrunners of which regularly cited The Stand as a major influence). But this series seems to toss King's linear storytelling out the window, instead opting to leap around in time.

That decision seems to be a big sticking point for people, but The AV Club's Randall Colburn thought opening the series on supporting characters Harold Lauder (Owen Teague) and his longtime crush Frannie (Odessa Young) worked pretty well:

It's a bold move, but an inspired one. Harold wasn't written to be one of the story's main drivers, but his character serves as perhaps the purest vessel for King's themes of free will and new beginnings, both of which form the spine of The Stand's strong pilot episode. In flashbacks, we see a bullied Harold watch in wonder as his Maine hometown is decimated by a mysterious super-flu from which he appears to be immune. Unmoved by the death of his distant family, he sees the looming apocalypse as a fresh start, a stroke of fate—especially since the only other survivor in Ogunquit is his longtime obsession, Frannie (Odessa Young). As he thrives, Frannie collapses, broken by the loss of everyone and everything she loved. Both of them begin having strange dreams, some filled with a kindly, silver-haired prophet, others with an ominous "dark man" with big promises. One invites them to Boulder, Colorado, the other to Las Vegas—both with the intention to rebuild.

There are choices to be made: Do you continue? Do you evolve? And which of the two potential saviors do you seek out? Harold and Frannie have wildly different reasons for soldiering on, yet their fates remain tumultuously intertwined. If you're looking to shake up the structure of King's novel, this is the way to do it.

The Hollywood Reporter's Daniel Feinberg was underwhelmed by the series, dinging the show for many of the same structural problem Sepinwall took issue with:

Scene-for-scene, there are beats that are a little disturbing or a little scary, but glued together with insufficient artistry or consideration, there's no way for anything to build. There's a draining of the story's inexorable gravity and tension, especially when you know which characters are already in Boulder and therefore which instantly recognizable character actors are there as flu fodder.

I thought I found my first fully positive reaction in Roxana Hadadi's review at Variety, but nope – she, too, has some problems with the way the show plays out:

The series' first couple of hours, premiere "The End" and second episode "Pocket Savior," build an exquisite amount of tension: The shifting locations capture the permeation of the outbreak; each cough and sniffle portends upcoming doom; and the series' makeup department should be commended for making the physical effects of [the virus] "Captain Trips" very, very gross. But after those initial world-building episodes, The Stand never feels dirty enough — neither in its presentation of the physical and emotional impact of all this sickness, loss, and death, nor in its consideration of the lure of [villain Randall] Flagg's totalitarianism-as-hedonism rule in his New Vegas bacchanalia.

You can read more reactions over at RottenTomatoes, but it sounds like this is a classic case of "your mileage may vary."

The Stand premieres on CBS All Access on December 17, 2020, with new episodes arriving on Thursdays.