Wednesday, August 25, 2010

30 Day TV Challenge - Day 17: "Baby, can you dig your man?"

17. Your favorite miniseries
Stephen King's The Stand
This is almost cheating. The Stand is Stephen King's best work, and my favorite novel of all time. But what else could my favorite miniseries be? It's an epic piece of television, the type of grand-scale masterpiece that was completely alien to network TV in the early '90s. It's dark, violent, and just fucking weird for so much of its running time, that I don't think any project like it would have survived without a name like King's attached to it. It makes a few errors, mostly in casting (rail-thin Corin Nemic as overweight Harold? Anemic Laura San Giacomo as the sexy, alluring Nadine? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar*?), but it's otherwise a brilliant adaptation. They took an eleven hundred page book, a shoestring budget, and created a miracle.

I'm sure everyone knows the plot: a manufactured virus escapes from a government lab and spreads rapidly to the general public. Within weeks, 99.7% of the world's population is dead from this "superflu," and those remaining -- totally immune to the virus, without clear explanation -- are plagued with dark, prophetic dreams that call to them as a summons. Some are drawn to the home of Mother Abigail, a kind and wise old woman in Nebraska; the others are compelled to seek out Randall Flagg, the "dark man," a smirking representative of pure evil who takes up residence in (of course) Las Vegas. A (final?) battle between good and evil begins to brew.

That's dark stuff, and, again, not what I'd call typical early '90s network fodder. There's grisly material here: endless shots panning over piles of corpses in all states of decay, extensive sequences of jackbooted government thugs violently stomping out those who try to spread the truth of the superflu -- ABC just let it fly. While a lot of the truly wretched stuff never made it out of the pages of the novel -- the really explicit sexual stuff, mostly -- the tone and style is remarkably faithful. As is the content: while several scenes are moved around chronologically, or composited together, the miniseries doesn't bear any narrative scars, which is remarkable for any kind of adaptation.

And I know I took a shot at the actors a couple of paragraphs ago, but most of the cast is stellar. Especially some of the smaller roles -- Ed Harris and Kathy Bates drop in for minor performances that cast long shadows indeed. Rob Lowe (pre-West Wing comeback) is a perfect Nick, and Corin Nemic is actually quite good as Harold, despite being disastrously miscast. The best, though -- and it's not even close -- is Matt Frewer, who is positively transcendent as the Trashcan Man. He practically steals the entire series: his psychotic desperation almost turns him into a hero.

The Stand was so great that ABC essentially handed Stephen King a blank check and carved up hours of prime time in later years for him to do with pretty much whatever he wanted. But none of those other projects -- The Shining, Desperation, Rose Red, even the mammoth Kingdom Hospital -- could measure up to his masterpiece.

*Okay, in fairness, that's just a cheap shot at Kareem: he's in three scenes, tops, and has maybe one total minute of screen time. And you know what? I actually like his character, which is one of the few original to the miniseries.