ABC takes 'The Stand' by Stephen King into miniseries history

May 08, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The rats are in the cornfield.

If you don't know what that expression means today, there's a good chance you will tomorrow. Such is the power of Event Television to seize the popular imagination overnight with new characters, catch phrases and even worlds. And it looks as if ABC has itself an event and a half in Stephen King's "The Stand."

"The Stand" airs in four parts on WJZ, Channel 13 -- tonight, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. each night.

For the four or five people in the mid-Atlantic region who have not read King's best seller, you're not going to need a lot of background to get into the sprawling, eight-hour, four-night epic that reinvents America in a manner beyond even the wildest dreams of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The premise is simple. A Defense Department experiment has gone awry, and a flu-like virus has been unleashed. In a matter of days the virus kills millions, with only a fraction of the population surviving the apocalypse.

"The Stand" is part horror story and part utopian vision. Before it's over Thursday night, the forces of good and evil will fight a mighty battle, and Molly Ringwald will give birth to a new order of ZTC man. As scary as the prospect might be of Molly Ringwald being mother to us all, she's part of the utopian vision, in case you were wondering. Ringwald jokes aside, "The Stand" is an impressive piece of work. It has a convincing, realistic look, relentless pacing, strong performances and a sense of grandeur as well as humor and irony.

Some of the best acting is done by Gary Sinise, who plays Stu Redman, an East Texas everyman who survives the virus and becomes leader of those fighting on the side of goodness. Redman is Ringwald's husband, and so father to us all.

But the most pleasant acting surprise in "The Stand" is the work of Rob Lowe, as Nick Andros, a deaf-mute. Just when the saga starts to sag under its massive narrative weight tomorrow night, Andros meets up with a retarded man (played by Bill Fagerbakke of "Coach"). The journey of the two outcasts gets the miniseries back up and running full-tilt.

The two are traveling across the Great Plains to Nebraska, because that's where Mother Abigail (Ruby Dee) lives. Mother Abigail is a 106-year-old woman who sits on the porch of a shack in the middle of a cornfield playing a guitar and singing such songs as "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."

If you are one of the survivors called to fight on the side of goodness, you have been seeing Mother Abigail in your dreams, and she has been calling you to the porch in the cornfield in Nebraska.

It is Mother Abigail who looks out into the corn one night and says, "The rats are in the cornfield." This being a Stephen King screenplay, we then get to see the rats up close. There are so many rats, though, that eventually Mother Abigail has to move with her flock to Colorado, where they start the New Order.

Where do the forces of evil set up shop after the apocalypse? Where else but Las Vegas?

The evil yin to Mother Abigail's blessed yang is Randall Flagg, a k a the Dark One. He's a rock and roll Lucifer in blue jeans, cowboy boots, shoulder-length hair and eyes that turn red and glow.

Flagg is played with a wickedly off-beat sense of humor by Jamey Sheridan, who was wonderful as Shannon in the short-lived TV series "Shannon's Deal." He introduces himself to one would-be disciple by saying, "Pleased to meet you. Hope you guessed my name." (For 10 points and the game, name the Rolling Stones' song to which he is referring.)

There are lots of little delights like that for pop-culture connoisseurs in "The Stand." Look for John Bloom -- who plays the Texas redneck drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs on Showtime cable network -- to make an early appearance tonight as a Texas lawman named Joe Bob. Look for King himself as a survivor who picks up a hitchhiker on the way to Mother Abigail. The hitchhiker is played by Laura San Giacomo ("sex, lies and videotape").

In the end, "The Stand" itself is a postmodern, pop-culture, very American version of a creation myth. You know, one of those stories that says, "In the beginning . . ."

That's probably the weakest thing about it. King is not a great visionary. You'll notice that his reinvented America is mainly a sentimentalized version of middle-class pieties. King is Frank Capra reimagined for suburban baby boomers.

But by the time you get Ringwald's baby and the New World and all that, you won't care if it doesn't add up. You'll understand that it was the journey that mattered -- from the rats in the cornfield to the finding of a new place to sow and reap our dreams. And it's a quite a ride that starts tonight on ABC.

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