‘The Stand’ Cast Previews Stephen King’s Pandemic Disaster

The Stand Jovan Adepo Heather Graham Larry Rita

How’s this for eerily relatable entertainment: On The Stand, a nine-episode thriller based on Stephen King’s 1978 bestseller, a deadly global pandemic strikes, dividing Americans.

But this catastrophe makes our real-life virus struggle look puny in comparison. The fictional superflu kills 99 percent of the world’s population, and after the survivors rebuild civilization, opposing factions clash in a deadly battle. Plus, everyone’s having extremely weird visions.

At least no one’s hoarding toilet paper. “It was very surreal coming to the end of production just as COVID was starting to emerge,” says showrunner Benjamin Cavell. Good thing this tale has a positive message for our time. “It’s about the human conviction to overcome any obstacle,” executive producer Taylor Elmore says. “There’s hope.”

The personification of that hope is 108-year-old Abagail Freemantle (Whoopi Goldberg in a role she’s coveted since 1994, when Ruby Dee was cast in the original ABC miniseries costarring Gary Sinise). The benevolent white-haired figure appears to some survivors in dreamlike visions, beckoning them to journey to a safe haven in Boulder, Colorado. “You come see me,” she implores in a raspy but soothing voice.

Her counterpart, supernatural Randall Flagg, aka the Dark Man (Alexander Skarsgård), appeals to the less savory folks who survived the illness (think: convicted murderers). He appears in dreams — accompanied by a sinister-looking wolf and neon pinup-girl signs — to tempt folks to join him in a Mad Max–ian Las Vegas. Like any respectable demon, he’s assembling an army to destroy what’s left of the world. Just because.

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Opening episodes mostly follow Abagail’s cohorts on the move; woven in are glimpses of Randall trolling prisons and the like for followers. Among the good guys is a former soldier, Texan Stu Redman (James Marsden), who escapes from a federal facility where he’d been held after early exposure. “Stu is a natural leader, a diplomatic voice of reason,” Marsden says.

A less expected hero: hard-drug user Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo), a New York musician whose star is on the rise. His road “family” includes traumatized child Joe (Gordon Cormier) and Nadine Cross (Amber Heard), a teacher hiding her lifelong connection to Flagg. “Taking care of others forces Larry to grow, think of someone other than himself,” says Adepo, who learned guitar for the role.

Odessa Young Greg Kinnear James Marsden The Stand

Robert Falconer/CBS

Teamwork is key in Boulder, where Abagail’s followers are restoring the power grid, moving families into neighborhoods and burying the dead in mass graves. (Marsden admits he found it hard to look at the “revolting” prosthetics; the virus victims’ necks swell and their noses ooze with goo.)

The centenarian, meanwhile, assembles a council to lead their community. Among her recruits: Stu; Larry; the forgiving Nick Andros (Henry Zaga), who is deaf; eccentric professor Glen Bateman (Greg Kinnear); and smart Maine native Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young), who is pregnant, making her key to humanity’s future.

“Frannie’s approach to how a society should rebuild can be mistaken for naiveté by some. She reminds people what empathy feels like and challenges their ideas of right or wrong,” says Young.

Her budding romance with Stu ignites fury in her one-time traveling companion (whom she used to babysit back in her hometown), awkward loner Harold Lauder (Owen Teague). The former bully victim “is obsessed with Frannie,” says Teague. “When she doesn’t live up to his mental vision of her, he [starts to go] off the rails.” Which makes him the perfect target for an operative planning to sabotage Abagail’s group from the inside.

Owen Teague The Stand Harold Lauder

Robert Falconer/CBS

And the threat from the outside? A dying refugee arrives from Vegas with a message from Flagg: He will destroy them all. It’s either be killed or make a stand.

King himself wrote a new ending for the series, so hopefully Frannie, unlike in the book, will join the fight. “To lead with empathy doesn’t always work,” Young says. “She understands sacrifices need to be made.” Spoken like a battle-ready soldier.

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The Stand, Series Premiere, Thursday, December 17, CBS All Access