Updated: Oct 7, 2021
The second TV adaptation of Stephen King's magnum opus came out last year on CBS All Access as a 9 episode run, 26 years after Mick Garris' miniseries version in 1994 and 42 years since the original publication of the book. But despite having 2.5 more hours of runtime than the '94 version, the new series feels rushed and incomplete despite its production values and impressive cast.
The plot of the show follows the book with America decimated by a super flu called Captain Trips, leaving the survivors to converge on Boulder, Colorado at the behest of saintly Mother Abigail or Los Vegas under the rule of the demonic Randall Flagg, who aims to incite a war between the two sides.
The biggest and most fatal misstep on the part of the showrunners was to go non-linear in the first 4 or so episodes to get to the second act of the story and then the confrontation in New Vegas. This not only muddles the storytelling but does a disservice to the characters and the actors playing them. We are asked to accept relationships such as Stu & Frannie without getting to see them blossom naturally.
James Marsden is a good fit for Stu Redman, but we are asked to accept he is just a nice guy, and that is about it for character development. The pivotal figure of Nadine (Amber Heard) is swayed to the dark side almost immediately and starts talking about blowing up the Boulder community not long after arriving.
Alexander Skarsgård tries his best as Randall Flagg and has some great moments but is underused in the first half of the season. Later on someone refers to him as the Walking Dude when there was maybe one scene of him walking across the States. Whoopi Goldberg is a welcome presence as Mother Abigail but is also underused. Henry Zaga is spot on as Nick Andros, an essential and tragic figure from the book, but again is undercut by the fast forward storytelling, meaning his ending does not resonate as much as it should. His relationship with Tom Cullen (M-O-O-N) adds much heart to the show, but again we could have used more.
Other actors get more time to shine - Jovan Adepo is excellent as Larry Underwood, the junkie rockstar turned surrogate father and one of the chosen few to lead the community. His escape from New York and bonding with another survivor (a nice cameo from Heather Graham) are well done, and he charts the transition from selfish, tormented druggie to pillar of the community, and his final moments in the story are powerful and intrinsic to the revolt against Flagg. Odessa Young makes for a fine Frannie Goldsmith and comes into her own in the new coda episode written by King himself, as does Stu. Greg Kinnear is a perfect fit for the stoner philosopher Glenn but again is underutilised. Owen Teague, who impressed as Patrick Hockstetter in the recent IT adaptation, gets a huge role here as angry, fragile Incel Harold Laudner and mostly pulls it off. I feel we spend more time than we need with him, but Teague makes him both a despicable and oddly sympathetic character.
Although the first half of the series ultimately cripples the show (and was surely done for budgetary reasons rather than storytelling ones) the second half works much better. The conflict between the two factions escalates quickly into violence and leads to the core group being sent on foot to New Vegas by Mother Abigail. Meanwhile, Vegas has become an enhanced Sunset Strip version of itself with strippers, non stop partying and live deathmatches in an empty swimming pool. While cringe-inducing in execution, it is what Vegas most probably would turn into in a similar situation. When the fabled Finger of God scene happens (not a fave ending of mine - even in the book), we get a lot of bodies torn apart and a gnarly death scene for one of Flagg's right-hand men. There is some decent gore in the show, including a high plummet from Flagg's penthouse suite for one character and then a piece of head trauma that would get Ari Aster hot. The score by Nathaniel Walcott and Mike Mogis ranges from quiet notes to doom guitar squall, not dissimilar to the late Johann Johannsson's unforgettable Mandy score from a few years ago.
Ultimately though, the series does not go far enough - the early travelling scenes seem cheap & small scale - where are the epic wide shots of the American landscape (we do get a few in the final episode) or the blocked freeways of hundreds of corpse filled cars? It's too small to feel like a mass extinction-level event. I haven't seen the 94 version since it was released, but I do recall the vast scope of the story was better realised then. Maybe in another 20 years, we will get a 12 episode arc which is what is really needed to do justice to King's epic, but for now we have this version that works in fits and starts but ultimately disappoints by not going long and shortchanging the viewer the journey us Constant Readers would expect.
3 inflated neck sacks out of 5.