ABC’s 1994 miniseries of The Stand, directed by Mick Garris from Stephen King’s screenplay, is a primer on the power—and weakness—of detail. The edict to “show, don’t tell” urges storytellers, including filmmakers and showrunners, to rely on action, sensory details, and contextual meaning rather than exposition to build narrative and theme alike. But the elements of any television production are already loaded with context and connotations, and careless aggregation of those associations can unwittingly create a snapshot of a specific time and tone, for better or worse.
In the case of The Stand, it’s for worse. The would-be epic tale of good and evil battling over the remnants of a nation (and presumably a world) devastated by a plague-like flu plays out like a six-hour supernatural soap opera. Too-familiar faces enact flabby, facile scenes that stand in for the novel’s sprawling web of events. Everything from casting choices to wardrobe to musical cues cements The Stand firmly in the mid-’90s, sacrificing any timelessness in favor of an already dated sensibility. It’s not the self-aware frolic of Clueless or the drab naturalism of Office Space. This is 1994 as an ’80s hangover, complete with former members of the Brat Pack and an 8-year-old Top 10 hit already milked for nostalgia.
It’s not surprising that the moment in which plague survivor Frannie Goldsmith (Molly Ringwald) plays Crowded House’s 1986 single “Don’t Dream It’s Over” on an old portable turntable—seeking a moment’s respite from the pandemic and from her own more personal grief—is more affecting than most of the dialogue. Every scrap of grace and resonance in Garris’ The Stand is borrowed—from Crowded House, from Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” from W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” and from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” which the miniseries uses as its introduction: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”
But Yeats’ poem provides a more appropriate epitaph for The Stand: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The whole miniseries is an unwieldy mixture of frenzy and flatness that smothers any epic sweep and turns it into a long slog toward an increasingly empty destiny.
It doesn’t help that the performances are so flat. In Emmy-winning old-age makeup that transforms her into Mother Abigail, God’s prophet in this depopulated land, veteran actor Ruby Dee could radiate lively dignity, but she’s hampered by King’s tics of dialogue (well, mayhap she is and mayhap she ain’t) and saccharine platitudes. As Randall Flagg, the dark agent of death and destruction, Jamey Sheridan displays not the temptations and terrors of Beelzebub but the mercurial affability and rages of a power-mad small-town politician mixing his glad-handing with some unexpected occult mayhem. (It’s tempting to say that diabolical mix of menace and charm can’t be captured on-screen, but Colm Feore as André Linoge in Storm Of The Century proves with a level smile that it can.)
And then there’s Rob Lowe, his image barely rehabilitated from his Brat Pack reputation and sex-tape scandal, cast as pensive Nick Andros, the deaf and mute young man who’s the heart of Boulder’s ad hoc government. It’s hard to believe the same actor who embodies Chris Traeger’s tireless physical intensity could be so halting and phony in simple stunts and stage-fighting, and so inept at expressing inner life through gesture and expression. Particularly galling, since Nick relies on lipreading, is his tendency to turn away from conversations, gazing thoughtfully into the distance. Corin Nemec, fresh off his run as a Ferris Bueller knock-off in Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, is an unlikely choice for hulking, haunted Harold Lauder’s uneasy blend of ardor, resentment, and troubled genius. Frannie, the object of his thwarted affection, giggles and frowns seemingly at random, appearing to find the near-extinction of humanity only slightly more inconvenient than an all-day detention.
Not all of the casting choices ring false, and not every performance is belabored. Gary Sinise (Oscar-nominated for his role in Forrest Gump that same year) brings a rugged, quiet capability to Stu, the commonsensical common man from East Texas. Miguel Ferrer plays Lloyd Henreid, Flagg’s second in command, with some austere depth; his performance is doubly refreshing because he’s not afraid to stop emoting all over the place. Trashcan Man, Flagg’s savant procurer of weaponry, is all but stripped of identity here, but Matt Frewer manages to invest his broken stream of jabber with some fragile humanity—and nothing screams “’80s hangover” like a supporting part for Max Headroom himself.
When so many performances fall flat, it’s hard to blame the actors. Except for Frannie’s furrowed eyebrows of apocalypse, everything plays so big, with yelling, emphatic gestures, pervasive unearned comradery or antipathy, that there’s no room for small moments to expand, not that there are a lot of small moments in The Stand. Mick Garris never met a Dutch angle or a jump scare he didn’t like, and he didn’t start underplaying in a cross-country tale of Biblical catastrophe.
The cast, Frannie’s endless assortment of distinctively ’90s floral dresses highly unsuitable for a post-apocalyptic road trip—even the incidental music by W.G. “Snuffy” Walden (which feels straight out of a Very Special Episode of Sports Night) set this timeless, eternal conflict as firmly in the early ’90s as a first-season episode of Friends but without using that mundane sense of time to create a plausible, complex reality, suggesting it’s not conscious world-building but authorial obliviousness.
In the case of the novel, we have unusual and persuasive evidence that its time-capsule quality is unconscious. When King expanded and edited the 1978 novel for its 1990 re-issue, he name-checked politicians and films of the ’80s, but also left much of its ’70s flavor intact, both in overarching cultural matters like its gender dynamics and musical references, and in details like a minor character delighted by the novelty of a neighbor’s color TV or (as Keith Phipps points out) pre-apocalypse Larry leasing a brand-new Datsun, a brand Nissan phased out starting in 1981. It’s hard to know if the miniseries’ entrenchment in time is similarly unconscious, but intentions aside, it’s limiting.
The Stand also suffers from painful literalism. In his first mystical vision, Nick Andros finds himself wandering a cornfield, hearing the faint patter and rustle as rain falls on corn stalks. Instead of trusting the audience to feel the power of this quiet moment, the script has Lowe bellow out “I CAN HEAR! I CAN TALK!” Nadine Cross (Laura San Giacomo), doomed to The Dark Man’s embrace, is drawn to her fate not by inklings of mingled desire and destiny but by Flagg popping up to yell at her or to smear her walls with instructions written in blood. As if it can’t muster confidence in its central villain’s dread horrors, The Stand doggedly shows Flagg in his various and unconvincing demon incarnations, giving the sense that they’re determined to wring their money’s worth from those latex masks and makeup.
But more disappointing—more devastating than all the braying and bombast and the lack of nuance—is how poorly The Stand captures the notion that a battle between good and evil is fought on the backs of workaday civilians. Stephen King’s script wipes out the point he built up so potently in the book: that ordinary people might gravitate toward Flagg for complex, even sympathetic reasons—a craving for order in the post-plague chaos, the lure of structured society that values their skills and dedication, the belief that they’re helping to re-establish discipline and law—and that, once having found their place in that well-ordered society, they’re resistant to challenge or change. It’s an unsubtle but trenchant critique of middle-class comforts and the seductive ease of hypocrisy.
In the miniseries, that nuance is erased. People gravitate to Flagg because they’re baaaaaad. They luxuriate in cruelty large and small, like Lloyd Henreid and his interstate killing spree, or Julie Lawry (Shawnee Smith) shrieking with laughter at “a retard and a deaf-mute.” They’re tragically broken like Trashcan Man or selfishly grandiose like Harold Lauder. Instead of the humming industry and friendliness described in the novel, every scene of Las Vegas and its territories shows people who are lazy or vicious or casually unkind.
Conversely, the people of Boulder are presented as blandly decent. Wiped away are the novel’s ruminations over the difficulties inherent in managing any large social group: in establishing laws and order, in assigning tasks necessary for the good of all, in maintaining peace in a world where courts and police have vanished, but guns and knives and jealousy and anger remain.
Some that lost complexity is a casualty of time constraints. Reducing a 1,000-page novel (or even the 600-page original, which is still a doorstop of a book) to a six-hour viewing time means compressing events, trimming tangents, and cutting or condensing characters. Ideally, that paring-down creates a concentrated version of the story, but The Stand feels diluted, watered-down. King’s novel juxtaposed the monumental struggle between good and evil in a post-apocalyptic world with the monotony of rebuilding some semblance of society. The miniseries delivers monotony without either the corresponding sense of work or any monumental import. It shows very little of the labor and wrangling that goes into creating the comfortable enclave of the Boulder Free Zone. Paradoxically, by reaching for grandeur and pathos, Garris’ miniseries plunks itself firmly in bathos.
As if to drive home the point(lessness), as the miniseries draws toward its end, the God of Mother Abagail’s faith begins to wrest agency from human hands, acting as errand-boy to the unquestioned protagonists of Boulder. Stu is visited with a vision of Harold’s death for no apparent reason except to provide spiritual certainty to the men undertaking a hard journey on nothing but faith.
The destruction of Las Vegas—of Randall Flagg and his minions, of the forces opposing that unsullied good represented by Boulder—is similarly freighted with the blank religious sureness that is the opposite of faith. In the novel, events put in motion by Mother Abagail and her followers dovetail to allow the sure and complete annihilation of Flagg’s faction. The final blow comes from Flagg’s own hand: His killing strike on a wayward henchman leaves a residual charge of electricity that triggers the unshielded nuke that is Trashcan Man’s gift of atonement. It’s a form of righteous justice and a fatal irony. Ralph calls the jittering ball of electricity “the hand of God,” but that’s a metaphor, not a description.
In the miniseries, this metaphorical hand of God becomes literal, its massive glowing fingers wrapping themselves around the A-bomb to spark the obliteration of the city, to kill Flagg and his disciples, and to dismantle all the stakes established in the story so far. This burst of micromanaging by God undermines the gravity and compassion of the protagonists by making their path a sure and holy one, rather than a journey of agonizing doubt.
Gravity and compassion are what this version of The Stand lacks, as well as metaphor. The story of tragic destiny is rendered flat and trite. It’s not just prosaic and pedestrian, though it is both of those. The miniseries of The Stand is constrained, diminished by its dreary pace, by simplistic characters and motivations, and by its cramped, narrow sense of time.