I was soooo excited to watch this series. I had read the regular version of the book by Stephen King when I was quite young, and then I read the extended cut more recently, (I think I might actually prefer the shorter version, which seems wrong to say as a lifelong Stephen King fan, but it might also be that reading it as a pre-teen was just a different experience then reading it as an adult) and had grown up with a copy of the six hour mini series from 1994 which I had easily watched a dozen or more times. I’d like to make this review fairly nuanced without giving too many spoilers, but I’m just not sure how possible that is, because I want to talk about things. So, just fair warning that although I won’t talk about a lot of the plot, as far as the characters go – there be spoilers ahead, arrr!
Needless to say, going into this thing my expectations were high, and I couldn’t wait to see what bringing a story about the plague that kills most of mankind into today would be like, particularly with the potential for poignancy considering we are actually all going though a pandemic. Not only that, but this was going to give us three extra hours of The Stand goodness, so there had to be some new things in store. After finishing this version, I would have to say that all my excitement fizzled, my hope went from Snoopy dancing to Droopy Dog just standing there, and I kinda want a do over. Not to say that there weren’t moments in the show where there was some great storytelling (they were working with King’s material after all), but there were other moments…and then more of those moments…where it was just so disappointing.
The first thing that bothered me, which you find out right out of the gate, is that they decided to advance the story through all the character building hardships and introductory meetings of the beginning to pretty much the middle of the book, and then relied on flashbacks to fill it in. I don’t know about you, but to me this falls so very flat because if it’s a flashback, then even if something pretty scary happens to the character, it really doesn’t matter because we know they will be ok. Dangerous things lose their danger. Things happening that would otherwise be compelling, are veiled in the blur and safety of history. There is also an element of confusion for anyone who doesn’t know the story very well being jerked back and forth from the future to the past, which I think just tends to make for choppy and perplexing storytelling. So, for me, this really sort of ruined the entire first half of the story, which was debatably the best part. Instead of setting the stage and getting you emotionally attached to the characters and using that to build on the horror of what happens, here we were already in the middle, which would leave many opportunities for poignancy and connection sadly out of touch.
Also, for some unknown reason, even with the intense focus on the “good” side from the first episode, it takes almost half of the series before we start to see what is going on in Flagg’s area. When we finally do, the big reveal seemed a trite, obvious caricature of what an “evil” place would be (from a strangely 1950’s perspective) with just too much gratuitously done everything and entirely no mob-bossery or fascism on hand, which one would assume should be the required motivation to keep control of these party-all-day-and-all-night-people. Also, drugs were a no-no here, originally, because this side was supposed to run like a well oiled machine, but apparently this version missed that memo. I’m not sure how these people got anything done.
Now, it can be argued that King’s work is often all about the love of the characters, and with the multitude of characters in this story to choose from, I was really excited to see what they would do and who they would focus on. Some of them were great, and they kept me hopeful and at least wanting to finish the show. I’m going to start with the bad ones, because we might as well get that out of the way.
Trashcan man – Possibly the best character in the series, in this one Ezra Miller gives it his all. I’ve really loved him in some of his other roles, but this one is just too much. Sure, Trashy is undoubtedly the craziest cat in the book, fawning, childish, and innocently the most malevolent, but I feel like going the way they did for his character stole his relatability with relentless tetradactyl like screeching instead of his trademark “bumpity-bump” tagline (ok, he said it like, twice, but that does not a tagline make). His character and motivation all but disappears and this version basically made him a pyromaniac in a diaper (um…???) for most of his, blessedly, few scenes. This was one of the biggest disappointments for me, as the character played by Matt Frewer easily stole the show with the 1994 version, as did the character from the book, and watching this one just made a caricature of his vulnerability and mental illness. Huge disappointment.
Randal Flagg – Again, this was one of the most memorable characters in the book and Jamey Sheridan‘s portrayal of him in the older version was going to be hard to beat. His jovial cat and mouse playfulness (literally, because this guy might actually eat you after playing with you) was not at all present with Alexander Skarsgård‘s version. I found this take on Flagg sorely misguided and really lost the intimidation and potential for danger that being around the other version made obvious. Even his brief evil form that we glimpse in the desert was just…kinda meh. You missed out a lot on his transformation capabilities, his crazy temper, and his personality in this version, and since he’s the big bad that we’re all supposed to dread, this makes him, and by extension all his scenes, lackluster. I think they were going for intensity this time around, and apparently that was supposed to be scary, but it felt more like he was trying to channel the Dwayne Johnson’s “smolder” ability in Jumanji. The only thing that he seemed to be able to do in this one is float, and we already had been there and done that with King’s other work It and it’s evil “we all float down here” tagline (where in contrast another Skarsgard nailed it in the remake so maybe they shouldn’t remind us). I know they were trying to show he could float when he was powerful or when the people believed in him, yadda, yadda, but as a super evil power unsteadily raising off the ground a few feet is kinda disappointing. One highlight for this character was a smiley face button he wore. I found it to be a character with more range, so I think that’s saying something.
Lloyd Henrid – Flaggs right hand man was played by Miguel Ferrer in the other version and was a great balance of tough guy, idiot and loyal servant. You didn’t want to mess with him, but there was a little bit of vulnerability and possible spark of goodness that made him likeable. This character, played by Nat Wolff could have made up for the weakness of Flagg, but instead was played like Miguel’s annoying kid brother who was just an ignorant, immature, weak and obviously caught up way over his head. His salvation was how well he did his peacock preening as he relished his new position of power, which did manage to give us some more vulnerable glimpses that made this character interesting. Like Trashy, Nat did his best with what they gave him, but I just didn’t like the new direction for this character and would have preferred Miguel’s version so we had something a bit more real feeling in the bad guy department. He just wasn’t intimidating, so it was hard for me to see how the bad side worked as a viable option for the “bad” people. With Flagg seeming to be a disinterested leader, and Lloyd seemingly so ineffective, we really needed one of those two to be able to lay down the evil law.
Nadine Cross – Amber Heard‘s portrayal of Nadine made her the blonde girl next door with a secret, versus the mysterious and intense version done by Laura San Giacomo previously, who was more of a desperate bad girl seduced and mislead by the dark side. Her trademark black hair streaked with white was gone, and I feel like they stripped away a lot of the possible tension between her and Larry, which made other scenes making her care for him while happily being willing to kill other adults, not really work for me. They also didn’t let her develop on her own, instead relying on her revelations about her predicament to basically be mansplained to her, which was just really disappointing all around as she was such an interesting character in the other versions.
I think you are probably seeing the theme here, all the bad guys were flawed, sure, but it seemed like they decided on lighter touches where more was very much needed (Flagg & Nadine), and went way too far overboard on the rest.
The Saving Graces:
Harold Lauder – This character, now played by Owen Teague, possibly saved the story, and this show was really centered on him anyway. He is a pivotal character, sure, but I’m not sure why they chose to play up his involvement and story so much when there were other characters who could have used some love, but what they were going for was working. His passion and rage were believable, and his distain and arrogance made sense, but the sad little boy that he was peeked through often, giving a touch of realism and humanity.
Larry Underwood – Another breath of fresh air, Jovan Adepo‘s Larry was spot on. We got to see him grow from his selfish start into a stellar human being, even though it had to be mostly through the unfortunate flash back usage. He was another of my favorite characters, so it was a delight that there was someone I could actually look forward to watching with so much screen time. Even though the story was quite centered on him, I think we could have used more Larry scenes.
Tom Cullen – I was really worried about this one, because Bill Fagerbakke‘s Tom Cullen (which could be considered the good sides Trash Can man counterpart) is another loveable show stealer, pivotal to the plot, innocent to the extreme, and easily in my top three people from this story. I think that Brad William Henke really did a great job. Like Lloyd Henrid, the character he played was similar but different, and yet still managed to keep all the good points without going over the top or being weird or disrespectful. There was a lot more of Tom that we could have seen, so it was really disappointing that they gave him so few scenes to shine.
Glen Bateman – Greg Kinnear did a great job with this educated atheist and all around realist stuck in a story about the battle between good an evil. As a pot smoking, straight man to most situations, he is a younger version then the book or older show, but hits all the right notes of reason and likability.
Ray Brentner – A swap from the original Ralph Brentner who was played by Peter Van Norden previously, this one was now played by Irene Bedard. This sassy lady was a delight, but I wish that they had spent more time fleshing out her character and giving her more scenes. Definitely not enough seen of her, and disappointing that there was virtually no backstory for this character at all.
Julie Lawry – The crazy selfish sociopathic girl we love to hate was perfectly cast and played this time by Katherine McNamara. She made this character better then before with some added smarts, so her additional scenes were a small saving grace in Las Vagas, as finally here is someone at the top who can fill the power void.
Rat Woman – The Rat Man character got a full on makeover and the wonderful Fiona Dourif delivers! I didn’t actually realize that was who this was, but her delightfully over the top and zany performance was another small spark of greatness in an otherwise annoying Las Vegas, and the additional scenes and power given to her made it all a little better.
Bobby Terry – Another brief standout on team bad guy was this quick role about the screwup, played perfectly by Clifton Collins Jr. He brought a bit character to life and all I could think was why wasn’t this guy playing Lloyd?!
Teddy Weizak – Another standout character who I couldn’t place from the original, but was actually Stephen King’s character and played this time around by Eion Bailey. They gave this guy way more to work with and a much better story than King got in his day. I’m wondering why or how this happened, and what his ultimate fate might be saying in metaphor (or I might be reading too much into it) but at least there was another interesting person to enjoy.
Joe – The final little show stealer was Gordon Cormier playing the feral child, Joe, he did a great job and really brought this character to life. Wish he was in it more too.
So, in closing I guess I have to say that this was not at all what I hoped, and it was only the gems in the saving graces list above that made this worth watching, which really hurts my heart to say as I wanted to like this so bad. There were some added scenes at the end written by King, but at that point it was a bit too little to late, and I’m not sure that it could possibly make up for the rest of it. I kind of feel like I had a cherished teddy bear from my youth viciously mauled by a Saint Bernard (Cujo, is that you boy? Give me back my happy memories!!) and it managed to lose some limbs, an eye, and his head in a pile of slobber. Fortunately, my hope for a better day springs eternal, and I can sew him back together and give him a wash, and then grab the original series to make it all better. The scars will remain. Laws, yes! Bumpty-Bump.
Have you seen this one? Read the book? Any thoughts?