Reality vs. Fiction: The Stand Returns During a True Pandemic

As Mother Abigail, Whoopi Goldberg gathers the good people in Boulder.
As Mother Abigail, Whoopi Goldberg gathers the good people in Boulder.
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The Stand is counted among Stephen King’s best novels, but it’s mainly known for being his longest. It was first released back in the halcyon days of 1978, when it was already a pretty hefty tome telling the story of a deadly disease and the war between good and evil that stemmed from it. Then it was released again in 1990 as a sort of director's cut, expanded (to over 1,100 pages) and updated for the new decade, because King as an author had enough clout to do all that.

The book's length kept it from being produced for the screen for a while, stuck in development hell. But it was finally made into a TV movie in 1994 starring Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Laura San Giacomo and a cast of other actors still significant then. And now it’s back, because we’re all trapped in our homes and we’ve already binged everything from 90 Day Fiancé to Judge Judy and need something new to watch — even if it's old-new, like The Stand. So here we are, with a fresh version of a stale story dropping weekly on CBS All-Access.

The first segment debuted on December 17, and like much of pop culture, King’s opus isn’t aging well. The producers have clearly tried to update it yet again, but there are inherent problems with telling the story of a future diseased apocalypse when we’re sort of going through one of our own. (For the record, early on King said that COVID-19 was not the fictitious disease in The Stand, and that people should just "keep calm and take all reasonable precautions.")

Unlike his longest novel, Stephen King has actually aged pretty well.
Unlike his longest novel, Stephen King has actually aged pretty well.

Still, there are other aspects of this series that sort of ring a cracked bell. To reach back to a completely different 1990s reference, here are the things about the 2020 version of The Stand that make us go “Hmmm…”

Captain Trips vs. COVID

Let’s start with the obvious — the so-on-the-nose coincidence that it sort of crosses over into terrible and inappropriate timing. Yes, we’re currently going through our own pandemic, and even though ours here in the real world might not be as deadly as the one in The Stand (King's is “well over 99 percent,” according to the show, which poses real problems for genetic repopulation, but let’s let that slide for a moment), it’s still a worldwide disease that’s, you know, killing actual people. When there are literal freezer trailers full of bodies in the United States today, the image of corpse collection as blue-collar maintenance work doesn’t really strike an audience as entertaining. While it’s by no means Uncle Stevie's authorial fault that his late-’70s novel has taken on a far-too-perfect echo over four decades later, weren’t there cooler heads that might have prevailed somewhere in the production line?

Black Lives Matter vs. the Magical Negro Trope

In this era of racial politics, there’s a discomfiting black-facey sense to the character of Mother Abigail. The wise and divine character in the 2020 version of The Stand is problematically portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg, whose defense of then-boyfriend Ted Danson in blackface at her 1993 Friar's Club Roast has largely been forgotten. Does King get a pass on this because the novel was written thirty years ago? Sure. But the 2020 edition doesn’t have the same luxury. After the tiki torches in Charlottesville, after police brutality against black communities nationwide, after a lumpy couple of St. Louis lawyers with mustard stains on their shirts held guns at peaceful BLM protesters and then were featured like heroes at the GOP National Convention? There’s a mandate from the better half of the American public to address institutionalized racism as a serious issue central to our nation’s conversation right now. And that’s something that Mother Abigail can’t fix, even in our dreams.

Randall Flagg vs. Donald Trump

Despots be despotting, and again, America has one of its own still in office, even if only for days counted in the dozens right now. But it’s tough to look at Randall Flagg’s hellscape of Las Vegas and not think two things. One: Man, it’s been a while since we've been to Vegas. And two: This looks a lot like what America might have become in Trump’s second term. Transpose Atlantic City for Vegas, where Trump would have relocated the White House to the Trump Taj Mahal, and it all becomes way too possible: Hooker-pee-soaked mattresses, neon Melanias lighting every street, the Boardwalk a pillory-paradise of unsavory un-Americans to ridicule and abuse, Trump’s ritual shooting of a Democrat in the middle of Pacific Avenue every day at six o'clock —  because, you know, Promises Kept and all.

Good vs. Evil

The whole conceit of The Stand isn’t so much a thing about the apocalypse. The story has always been less interested in the way society can disintegrate with frightening quickness and ease; from the jump, it's been more about the allegory, King’s uber-American take on a Lord of the Rings epic. Again, the contemporary works very much against the relatively simplistic fictional narrative here. Suggesting that the American political divide might be convincing analogue is far too tidy; even the most cynical minds couldn’t make a full and honest case for the stand-ins for Good vs. Evil here being Dems vs. Repubs, though I’m sure Tucker Carlson is somewhere pleasuring himself while thinking of the reverse of that oversimplified argument right now.

Boulder, Colorado vs. Heaven

Speaking of good versus evil: Boulder vs. Vegas? Colorado vs. Nevada? That’s a match-up that should be more about who makes the best green chile, not the salvation of the soul. We get that Stephen King lived in Boulder when he was developing the idea for The Stand, so it may be simply something along the lines of King writing what he knew. (At least a few of the scenes were actually filmed in Boulder, along with the Garden of the Gods.)

But anyone who’s been stuck in a line of cars on U.S. 36 during pre-game Colorado Buffs traffic knows all too well: Boulder might be pretty, but heaven on earth is stretching it. Boulder’s version of the afterlife would probably be Buddhist, anyway, and have something to do with reincarnation while the soul learns all the lessons that it has to learn. You know: Like the constant life-death-life cycle of Stephen King’s The Stand.

The Stand is dropping weekly on CBS All-Access; episode one is currently available for viewing.

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